Friday, November 19, 2021

Heart of Champions: Movie Review

Overly dramatic but it has bite (and Michael Shannon).
Heart of Champions (also known as Swing which is perhaps a better name given that it’s less cloying and has relevance to the movie) opens with a men’s eight rowing team at a fictional ivy league university losing to Harvard. These over-privileged, rich, white college boys proceed to throw a hissy fit and point fingers at their teammates. Not an inspiring way to start an underdog sports story, but then in walks Michael Shannon.   2021

Directed by: Michael Mailer

Screenplay by: Vojin Gjaja

Starring: Michael Shannon, Alexander Ludwig

Jack Murphy (Shannon) is their new coach; he’s a gruff, no-nonsense army vet who has to teach them how to be a team. There are many parts of this movie that are as cliché as they sound. However Shannon is really good. He gives the movie so much gravitas that it gets away with many scenes that are about how to be a team. I was even willing to cheer for over-privileged, rich, white college boys as long as it meant that Michael Shannon helped teach them how to be responsible men.

Of course the new coach barely succeeds because the other half of this movie is college boys behaving exactly like college boys. Alex (Alexander Ludwig) is convinced he’s destined for the Olympics and spends the entire movie telling everybody that he’s better than them; his awfulness is only outdone by his father. A better movie could have made Alex more sympathetic earlier but it struggled with making that turn. New kid Chris (Charles Melton) has trouble fitting in and is roommates with natural leader John (Alex MacNiccol).

Prior to the movie John stole Alex’s girlfriend Sarah, Chris then starts dating Sarah’s roommate Nisha. At times the romantic storylines were refreshing because it fits the age and temperament of the boys. This is exactly how over-privileged, rich, white college boys act. But it’s also frustratingly melodramatic. Actual romance for a side-plot would be more entertaining but not as realistic or as fitting to this particular movie.

Things take a dark turn. I did not see it coming, and it makes a bit more sense why what seems like such a cliché-ridden sports movie got the green light and attracted people like Michael Shannon. But Heart of Champions has some tough tones to balance. The team isn’t exactly likable, their college love life is overly dramatic, the beginning is pure triteness, but then everything stops and the movie takes a hard turn into darkness. It’s not an enjoyable turn but it gives the movie more bite and the audience is no longer opposed to seeing these kids succeed. Life isn’t pretty.

While the beginning is very predictable, it’s nice to apply it to rowing – a sport that rarely gets the Cinderella treatment, and still doesn’t get the Cinderella treatment given the dark turn three-quarters in. Michael Shannon pulls focus exactly as he needs to. The cinematography is really nice and fits the themes of the movie. The story veers a lot into the melodrama but it’s not a complete waste of your time.

The alternate title Swing is a rowing term referring to when the oarsmen are in perfect unison and the boat gracefully glides through the water.