“Heart of Champions” is a “big game” sports drama, a formula picture peopled with character “types,” many with “secrets” that are obstacles that the hero/heroes must overcome to triumph.
It’s set in the world of college rowing, “crew,” the province of clean-cut preppies —“Winklevii”— Ivy Leaguers living in a world of privilege, with or without the “ivy.”
That setting serves up the slang and jargon of the sport, which hasn’t been the focus of nearly as many films as football, hoops or, well, college debate.
You may know the lightweight teammate who sits in the back, steering and calling out cadences as he/she cajoles “the eight” to victory is called the coxswain. But you probably don’t know who the “stroke” is, or the “seven,” or what summoning up the guts for a “power 10” is about.
“Catching a crab” and “swing” as defined in rowing will be new concepts for most.
But the almost-saving grace of this pre-fabricated sports drama is that a lot of those concepts are barked by the great Michael Shannon. He plays the new no-nonsense coach of fictional Belleston U. through the races, ups, downs and “power 10s” of its fictional 1999 season.
Why 1999? Because when you need to pass your 40something coach off as a Vietnam vet, you’ve got to be better at math than Spike Lee and his “Da Five Bloods Too Damned Young to Have Served.”
Alexander Ludwig of “Vikings” is the rich rower whose father (David James Elliott) is ensuring will make the 2000 U.S. Olympic rowing team. Dad is a piece of work. “Alex?” He’s a bullying, finger-pointing brat, “captain” in name only.
“Riverdale” and “The Sun is Also a Star” alumnus Charles Melton is Chris, “the transfer” from U. Wisconsin, the guy with the “secret” burden of grief. He’s a loner who “hates f—–g rowing,” and just catnip to Anglo-Indian coed Nish (Ash Santos). But not at first.
She’s got to get from “Alcoholic dumb jock misogynist pig!” to “What was his name again?”
And Alex MacNicoll is John, the guy with better rapport with his teammates, the “natural leader” old alumnus/new coach Travis (Shannon) has to put in charge for these lads to punch out assorted Ivys to get to a national championship. His “secret” is the most obvious of all.
Screenwriter Vojin Gjaja, who has some connection to the film’s star (he was a producer of the Shannon-starring “The Quarry”) works in a lot of rowing “lore” and college life cliches into the script to lend it some authority.
The business of a defeated rowing team surrendering its jerseys to the victors, the notion of “the ghost in the boat,” assorted Belleston U. “old (fake) college traditions” such as “appeasing the river gods” the old river locks and the “nude Olympics” played out with every “first snow” pad out a movie that billboards its third act with just a few clumsy “Foreshadowing 101” touches in the first.
The “training exercises” scenes and montages of scenes involve “team building,” and just enough novelty to stave off utter boredom.
But Shannon fans should show up for the barking. The man has “No Nonsense” stamped on the bottom of his Hollywood head shots. He’s a natural at this sort of role.
“Why are you here?” he demands of a team he just saw blow the national title race, after taking a lead. “No man is an island,” he intones, never letting on how corny that line was on the page, much less performed aloud. Even in 1999.
Still, “Leadership is measured in the hearts of those who follow” is a good line, especially the way Shannon delivers it.
As film subjects, college romances and the trials and tribulations of college life may be mundane in the extreme, even set against the Sport of Winklevii. But Shannon is always so good you tend to lose track of all that when he’s on screen. He’s just not on it enough to save the movie.
Rating: PG-13 for some violence, suggestive material, partial nudity and brief strong language (profanity)
Cast: Michael Shannon, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Ash Santos, Alex MacNicoll
Credits: Directed by Michael Mailer, script by Vojin Gjaja. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:59