During their last year at an Ivy League college in 1999, a group of friends and crew teammates’ lives are changed forever when an army vet takes over as coach of their dysfunctional rowing team.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more durable movie genre than the sports film. Around since the days of the silents, it’s really no surprise they’ve become a mainstay where American cinema is concerned. These features contain many of the precepts we hold dear – the notion that any obstacle can be overcome with hard work and perseverance and that redemption is just one swing or a successful touchdown pass away. Though predictable and often a bit hokey, they’re a panacea we cling to when we need a quick dose of inspiration, the better entries separated from the pack by the sincerity with which they are rendered.
I wish I could report that Michael Mailer’s “Heart of Champions” was not in the dime-a-dozen category where this genre is concerned but I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Based on a true story – though the exact circumstances are hard to track down due to key names and places being changed in Vojin Gjaja’s script – the story takes place at an Ivy League school, the time is 1999 and the institution’s rowing team is in disarray, desperately in need of repair.
I’d be willing to bet you could predict what happens but I’ll give you the particulars all the same. The captain of the team, Alex (Alexander Ludwig), is as arrogant as he is rich, a pretty boy prima donna who is intent on making the Olympic rowing team and has no problem stepping on anyone to get there. Meanwhile, Chris (Charles Melton) is the new kid on the block, a forever petulant transfer on scholarship who hates pulling the oars; he has a dark secret as well. Then there’s a new coach by the name of Murphy (Michael Shannon) whose terse, demanding nature obscures the fact that he cares for his charges. Oh, he has a skeleton in his closet too.
It’s pretty standard stuff – the crew resists their new leader’s seemingly unorthodox methods, fighting him every step of the way until they figure out that the old man might actually be on to something. The scenes of defiance and triumph are done in a rote manner and come like clockwork, at least during the movie’s first hour.
What’s ironic is that some genuine surprises occur where the team’s journey is concerned. The culminating triumph that caps the inspirational climax doesn’t occur as we’ve come to expect and the personal lives of the key members of the team certainly contain more than their share of curveballs. Unfortunately, Mailer and his young cast are incapable of bringing any life to this material, none of them able to provide a convincing performance, their range seemingly limited to going from 1A to 1B.
Shannon brings his usual sense of intensity to the role and is, not surprisingly, the best part of the movie. Talented actor that he is though, there’s little he can do with a character of such narrow depth or a script that requires so little of him.
Internet searches failed to turn up any articles dealing with the team’s true-life travails, though if half of what we see on screen is true, it must by a whooper of a story. Perhaps a documentary examining these events may have been a better approach, as this lackluster fact-based approach fails to captivate or inspire.