NEW TO VOD! If it weren’t for all the PG-13 cursing, Michael Mailer’s rowing drama Heart of Champions could easily be mistaken for a faith-based film. The melodramatic piano score, the way each shot resembles a postcard or an inspirational poster, the overabundance of spelled-out messaging about the importance of team spirit – it all falls right in line with the sort of stuff Pure Flix distributes. However, what saves this rowboat from toppling over is the anchoring power (sorry, couldn’t help it) of its lead.
Set in 1999, the film focuses on an Ivy League rowing team, led by Alex (Alexander Ludwig), training to compete for the Olympics. Reluctant rower Chris (Charles Melton) joins the team on a scholarship, harboring a tragic backstory. After losing an important tournament, antagonistic behavior between the boys reaches its peak. Enter army vet-turned-coach Jack Murphy (Michael Shannon) to teach them the importance of teamwork.
The newbie, despite his hate for the sport – “It’s just eight guys rowing,” he states. “It’s all mechanical. Nothing more.” – bonds with his teammates, falls in love, and learns to appreciate the activity he’s always loathed. In the background, jealousies and resentments unfurl, fights are fought, and an unexpected death occurs. It all culminates in a deciding championship again Harvard.
“…bonds with his teammates, falls in love, and learns to appreciate the activity he’s always loathed so much…”
Shannon is always reliable and effortlessly elevates the material, making it compelling even to those who are not interested in the sport and/or allergic to this sort of fare. It always feels like he is flirting with insanity, and even in a seemingly conventional role, there’s a discernable hint of madness in his eyes. “There’s still some ghosts here,” Jack states at one point, and it’s unclear if he’s talking about the school or his own head.
Alas, the scenes involving the rest of the cast leave much to be desired. Mailer and screenwriter Vojin Gjaja don’t shy away from preachiness, with messages spelled out in proclamations, such as: “You are here to learn one of the most important lessons in life: how to work together to achieve the impossible as a team,” or “Leadership is measured in the hearts of those who follow.” The rowing segments are suitably intense, although some of the out-of-focus greenscreen is jarring. At two hours, Heart of Champions is way too long.
Mailer’s glossy film contains all the expected melodrama that hardcore fans of sports movies have come to expect. Others may wince at the predictability of the plot but are bound to find at least some respite in Shannon’s magnetic performance.
"…Michael Shannon...effortlessly elevates the material..."