National Champions deals with a notable inequity in sports. College football is a multi-billion dollar a year business, yet the student athletes see almost none of the financial benefit. Yes, they get a free education and a few additional small perks, but that's a drop in the bucket given how substantially other people profit. A smart, probing drama could be made from that topic. Unfortunately, this isn't it, thanks to a shallow approach and the inclusion of too many unnecessary characters.
LeMarcus James (Stephan James) is the star player for the Missouri Wolves, as well as the likely top pick at the upcoming NFL draft. The team is in New Orleans for the big championship game, which takes place in three days. Commercials have been sold for exorbitant prices in anticipation of high television ratings, merchandise is ready to go, and tickets are in the hands of the fans. LeMarcus, however, has just announced via social media that he doesn't intend to play. Too many other people are making too much money, he says, leaving the players part of (in his words) a modern-day slave trade.
This puts coach James Lazor (J.K. Simmons) in a tight spot. An NCAA official (Jeffrey Donovan), an attorney (Uzo Aduba), and even some of Lazor's own staff put pressure on him to get his player back on board. LeMarcus makes it worse by going around to the members of both teams, encouraging them to join his cause. He's already got one recruit, fellow teammate Emmett (Alexander Ludwig). National Champions follows the situation as it builds to a crisis the closer to game-time it gets.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen) and written by Adam Mervis (21 Bridges), the film raises valid points about the unfairness of the current set-up. Corporations, universities, and coaches all rake in big bucks from college football, while the people actually playing the game get nothing. LeMarcus points out some of the well-known players who ended up broke once their time on the gridiron was over. It is also brought up how many top athletes are African-American, meaning they're generating massive profits for mostly white-run institutions. National Champions is best when it sticks to those beats.
The film is at its worst when it steers away from those beats, which it does regularly. There's a whole pointless subplot about Lazor's marital woes, as his wife (Kristen Chenoweth) carries on an affair with one of LeMarcus's professors (Timothy Olyphant). Big-money boosters (Tim Blake Nelson and David Koechner) add nothing, other than to tighten the screws more for Lazor, who's already feeling the screws tightened as far as they can go. As for the lawyer, she's here to introduce a silly blackmail element that feels desperate, as though the story is running out of ideas.
National Champions is also an overwritten film. LeMarcus delivers a number of big soliloquies, none of which seem like how somebody would really talk in this scenario. His efforts to win over other players sound like political speeches rather than common-sense appeals to their intellects. Waugh compounds the matter by employing a pulsating musical score that would be far more appropriate in an action picture. Using it is a misguided attempt to make the movie seem more dramatic than it actually is.
The bright spots are Simmons and James. They're good, and when the movie focuses on them and the fundamental idea of college football being a system that exploits young athletes, it's riveting. Too bad it only does that about half the time.
out of four
National Champions is rated R for language throughout and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.