National Champions review — a couple of knockout turns

By Marc Miller
Published: December 11, 2021 (Last updated: December 16, 2023)
National Champions review — a couple of knockout turns


Stephen James and J.K. Simmons give a knockout turn in the flawed but highly entertaining National Champions.

Sure, you can have your remakes of the Sharks versus the Jets. Even the latest PTA film with a title that takes you a day to research the reasoning behind. Or that art-house film within a movie about how driving a car and working out how your cheating wife held a private casting couch at home. But give me a film where J.K. Simmons leads men to football glory and puts it all on the table. Watch as he openly and passionately tells you how his wife left him and how he can’t get hard without a handful of tiny blue pills to 50 testosterone-filled adult males before he tells them to grab glory by the balls and take it. National Champions is tailor-made for Simmons. Along with Stephen James, they both give knockout turns.

National Champions is far from a perfect movie, but it’s one hell of an entertaining one. Simmons plays coach James Lazor. A hall-of-fame-worthy coach who is finally ready to win his first national championships. Well, that’s until two of his players stage a persona boycott. They are LeMarcus James (If Beale Streer Could Talk’s Stephan James), the future NFL number one draft pick, and his best friend, Emmitt Sunday (Alexander Ludwig of The Hunger Games fame). They attempt to start a player’s strike until all players are daily compensated. And why the hell not? Since big-time NCAA football earns billions of dollars per year.

The issue many will have with Ric Roman Waugh’s National Champions is that its provocative themes of free labor (and most of that being of young African-American males) was undercut by last summer’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling to lower the NCAA restrictions on “education-related benefits” for college athletics that have violated antitrust laws for decades. However, this allows many to accept endorsements and benefits. Still, the issues of free paid labor and medical insurance remain. Remember, most college athletes will never play professionally after their schooling is complete.

National Champions Movie | Official Trailer | In Theaters December 10th – YouTube

While I can’t stand films that make up fake college universities and team names, there is nothing that Waugh and writer Adam Mervis (21 Bridges) could do about that issue. These billion-dollar sports leagues are incredibly image-conscious, and this would have dictated script approval, even if they allowed the film to process that far (remember Draft Day?). Some of the most interesting scenes are between NCAA leadership and conference presidents (even naming conferences like the SEC). Jeffrey Donovan’s NCAA precedent Mike Titus hires a corporate lawyer, played with an incredible amount of tenacity by Uzo Aduba. She is determined to undercut James at all costs.

Does National Champions have its obvious flaws? Of course. Waugh’s movie tries to entertain more than educate (Timothy Olyphant’s professor character is cringeworthy), but it’s a genre film that builds a fair amount of suspense that is soundly paced. They aren’t trying to bring home Oscar hardware here. However, they deserve praise for a script that works as hard as this one does. They eye-openly stick to their principles by admitting there are no easy answers. Even while refusing to offer up a cliche ending where all parties come together for the greater good. It’s an Any Given Sunday look at big-time college athletics. A movie with a live-wire pulse that isn’t afraid to hold up a life goes on ending.

That deserves a small amount of glory.

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