There are plenty of big blockbuster films that release every year. Some would even go as far as to say that’s all we’ve been getting over the past few years. Luckily, companies like STX exist, which focus on mid-budget films to fill the space between indies and blockbusters. The latest release from STX is National Champions, which has a surprisingly solid cast and will make you question how the NCAA operates.
National Champions follows LeMarcus James (Stephan James), star quarterback for the fictional college team, the Michigan Wolves. James and his best friend and teammate, Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), forge a plan to change the way the NCAA treats student-athletes. Their plan goes into action right before the championship game, which is a huge moneymaker for the NCAA, and the first potential championship win for the Michigan Wolves coach, James Lazor (J.K. Summons).
The creatives behind National Champions had a nine million dollar budget to work with, but that only shows in the writing. While you may not have heard of every actor in the film, there are many B and C-list actors who step up to put on a compelling performance in their roles. In addition to J.K. Simmons, Lil Rel Howery drops his usual role of comic relief and puts on a serious face for his minimal screen time as Defensive Coach Dunn. Tim Blake Nelson and Timothy Olyphant have a bit more screen time as financial backers Rodger and professor Elliott, respectively, and showcase their talents well.
You won’t be blown away by the performances, but everyone involved in National Champions brings their A-game whenever they’re on screen. It’s an ensemble cast that works surprisingly well given the screenplay they were working with, and the low budget for the film. In fact, the only disappointing aspect of the film is the writing. Adam Mervis handled writing duties on the film, and he was also responsible for the mediocre 21 Bridges script back in 2019.
The first act of the film is where the script is lacking most. As the main plot is unveiled to the audience, the script makes it feel like a low-budget film. However, once all of the initial exposition is out of the way, the script gets a bit sharper, and the actors put on a much better performance. The middle portion of the film is where National Champions shines, and where the audience will be captivated.
Mervis’ writing also lacks emotion for a film that deals heavily with the potential exploitation of student-athletes. The most emotional scene in the film comes from Uzo Aduba, who plays the NCAA lawyer, Katherine. You may know her as Crazy Eyes from the Netflix series, Orange Is The New Black, so her range is there, but having a ruthless lawyer as your primary source of emotion doesn’t work well.
The end of National Champions doesn’t provide a proper conclusion to the events of the film, especially after taking the audience on a ride through a bevy of student plights. There is an ending, but it’s almost as if the film was afraid to choose a side, and instead takes a non-confrontational way out. However, while the ending is somewhat unsatisfying, the film as a whole still holds up fairly well, and will likely surprise you if given a chance.
About National Champions
Synopsis: Follows star quarterback who ignites a player’s strike hours before the biggest game of the year in order to fight for fair compensation, equality, and respect for the student-athletes.
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Writer: Adam Mervis
Stars: J.K. Simmons, Stephan James, Alexander Ludwig, Lil Rey Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Uzo Aduba
Runtime: 1 Hour, 56 Minutes
Releases: December 10th, 2021 (USA)
Bryan Dawson has been writing professionally since the age of 13. He started his career as a video game writer and has since worked for Random House, Prima Games, DirecTV, IGN, AOL, the British Government, and various other organizations. For GNN, Bryan taps into his passion for movies.