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"NATIONAL CHAMPIONS"
(2021) (Stephan James, J.K. Simmons) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Various coaches and power players must contend with a star college quarterback calling for a strike before the big championship game.
PLOT:

It's 72 hours before the college football championship game when Missouri Wolves star and recent Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback LeMarcus James (STEPHAN JAMES) and his teammate, Emmett Sunday (ALEXANDER LUDWIG), drop a bombshell on the sporting world by calling for a player strike over the NCAA making money off of their on-field work. This not only doesn't sit well with their coaches -- James Lazor (J.K. SIMMONS) and Ronnie Dunn (LIL REL HOWERY) -- but also a variety of power players in the world of college athletics.

That includes Southeastern Conference head Richard Everly (DAVID KOECHNER), NCAA executive Mike Titus (JEFFREY DONOVAN), and head booster Rodger Cummings (TIM BLAKE NELSON). But the one to be feared the most is outside consultant and fixer Katherine Poe (UZO ADUBA) who sets out to find anything incriminating on LeMarcus to blackmail him to stop his crusade and from getting other players to join them.

As the clock ticks down toward the big game, LeMarcus and Emmett stand their ground, all while Coach Lazor -- who's unaware his wife, Bailey (KRISTIN CHENOWETH), is having a fling with college professor Elliott Schmidt (TIMOTHY OLYPHANT) -- tries to talk sense into those two and the rest of the players.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10

According to 2020 stats provided by the NCAA, more than 73,000 student-athletes play college football, with only a bit more than 250 of those ending up being drafted by NFL teams each year. Less than that make the final cut, and the average for years played in the league is just over three, so the odds of making a living playing pro football are quite slim.

Yet, those same college players help generate billions of dollars in revenue for the NCAA and others associated with school teams and so on. Heck, the top ten paid coaches make more than $5 million each per year, with the number one reportedly topping out at more than $10 million, which is more than all but two NFL head coaches in 2021.

All of that stems from the students who likely won't ever see such money and could very well end up with long-term, injury-related issues from the violent sport. Thus, the move recently by the NCAA that still doesn't allow players to get paid for playing, but does allow them to generate revenue for themselves from endorsement deals, their social media accounts, autograph signings, and such, all of which were forbidden until just recently.

Yet, even with that, there's still a push to allow student-athletes to profit from playing in games, and that's the subject of the new football movie "National Champions." I'll admit that when I first heard of the film, I figured it would be another boilerplate offering leading up to the big game where the outcome comes down to the last play, something I've seen too many times to count.

Thankfully, writer Adam Mervis and director Ric Roman Waugh have decided to go the opposite route and focus on the events leading up to the big, nationally televised championship game where, natch, lots of money is riding on everything playing out as expected. But with just seventy-two hours to go, the recent Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback of one team, LeMarcus James (Stephan James), decides to call an audible with his best friend and teammate, Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig).

Fully aware that while he'll likely be drafted number one in the upcoming NFL draft, Emmett and most of the rest of the team and tens of thousands of others on other squads won't even be selected, LeMarcus has decided to use his star leverage -- and all of the TV rights money tied up in the upcoming nationally televised game -- to call a strike. His and Emmett's goal is to force the NCAA to pay all student-athletes a cut of the big money action or else they won't play, and they intend to get teammates and even their rivals to join their crusade.

Their coach, James Lazor (J.K. Simmons), is blindsided by this development, certainly more so than the not that surprising revelation that his wife, Bailey (Kristin Chenoweth), is leaving him for Professor Elliott Schmidt (Timothy Olyphant), and would like to talk some sense into his players if only he could locate them.

The unexpected twist puts higher-up figures on notice to resolve the matter, with the likes of NCAA executive Mike Titus (Jeffrey Donovan), SEC chairman Richard Everly (David Koechner), and slimy but powerful team booster Rodger Cummings (Tim Blake Nelson), assembling to quell the rebellion. And their ace in the hole is steely consultant-meets-fixer Katherine Poe (Uzo Aduba) who's good at what she does -- namely digging up incriminating dirt that should convince the players to lay down their self-righteous swords of change in exchange for their helmets and pads.

And thus, the big game that ends up afoot isn't played on the field, but instead transpires in hotel rooms, conference rooms, and on national TV sports shows where each side uses various tactics to help them win.

If anything, the flick is certainly timely, but I also found it decently engaging, well-acted, and thought-provoking. It also includes some big speech moments -- from the star player, his coach, the fixer, and so on -- that will likely divide viewers and critics alike. While some might find them too over-the-top and reeking of conveniently placed and even faux profundity, I found that they worked fairly well.

As does the overall film. While the tension never rises to the level that all involved were likely shooting for, at least the offering plays out in different than expected ways than the usual college football movie storyline. Scoring points for that, "National Champions" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 2, 2021 / Posted December 10, 2021


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