In what has to be one of the more generically-titled movies of 2021, National Champions comes late into the year carrying a specular J.K. Simmons performance inside the coat of a semi-boring drama. While I have no doubts about the intention of the filmmakers to craft a story worth telling, I personally did not connect with the material. Perhaps it is due to a lack of general sports knowledge—I have no doubt those more fluent in the language and ins and outs of college football will have a better time with this one.
The college football national title is nigh, and it heavily rests on the shoulders of the big game between the Wolves and the Cougars. However, one player, LeMarcus (Stephan James), is making waves in a major way. He sets up a press conference where he exposes corporate salaries and where money is allocated—not only this, but also unpaid labor practices. LeMarcus and teammate Emmett (Alexander Ludwig) are committed to getting player disability pensions and to be recognized as a unionized workforce. They want players to be seen as employees and not just student athletes. Time to rally others around their important cause… Billions of dollars are on the line, as well as the legacy of head coach, James (J.K. Simmons), and various behind-the-curtain power brokers. Adulthood machinations as they scheme to combat LeMarcus and the others is decidedly dull and did nothing for me.
This is the type of movie where the audience is introduced to the main themes and central concepts through sportscaster programs and dialogue—take that as you will. I found the film’s conclusion to be wholly unsatisfying. It felt like an end-of-episode cliffhanger. Moreover, National Champions feels like a failed CW pilot and a lesser iteration of their show All American. Shades of CW is never a bad thing (that network is actually one of my favorites, constantly churning out quality content), but I craved more from a sports drama featuring J.K. Simmons and Alexander Ludwig with those hunky arms. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen, Greenland), National Champions lacks a stylistic pizazz to elevate it above traditional dramatic fare.
National Champions wants to make a change when it debuts in theaters on Friday, December 10th.