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‘National Champions’ Film Review: College Football Drama Doesn’t Move the Chains on the Issue of Student Compensation

This already somewhat dated morality play goes offsides in its moralizing, but J.K. Simmons and Uzo Aduba give memorable performances

In Ric Roman Waugh’s “National Champions,” two student athletes decide to launch a player’s strike two days before a championship game in which their participation is crucial. It’s a story ripped from at least a few years of headlines, and a subject about which there has been much debate. It may or may not come as a surprise, then, that a single two-hour film fails to sufficiently capture its complexities, even working from a compelling premise with a gifted cast.

Stephan James (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) plays LeMarcus James, the star quarterback who decides to go AWOL on the eve of the Division I football championship game that his efforts made possible. Aided by his teammate Emmett (Alexander Ludwig, “Bad Boys for Life”), LeMarcus escapes the protective enclave of the team hotel and announces a plan to the media to hold the game hostage in exchange for a complete overhaul of NCAA rules, compensatory packages for student athletes and protections for young players sidelined by injury.

Head coach James Lazor (J.K. Simmons) is understandably perturbed to discover his player’s political gambit, but his problems are bigger than “just” the potential loss of his first national championship; not only is the NCAA breathing down Lazor’s neck to ensure the game gets played, guaranteeing their profits, but the coach’s long-suffering wife Bailey (Kristin Chenoweth) decides to leave him for an academic (Timothy Olyphant) just as the crisis explodes.

Working with his assistant coach Dunn (Lil Rel Howery) and a pair of overzealous good-ol’-boy team boosters (Tim Blake Nelson and David Koechner), Lazor desperately tries to find LeMarcus and talk some sense into him before everything he and his star player have worked for comes crashing down around them. But as kickoff of the game looms on the horizon, NCAA executive Mike Titus (Jeffrey Donovan) decides to take matters into his own hands, recruiting a mysterious “fixer” named Katherine (Uzo Aduba) to dredge up incriminating information to discredit LeMarcus, first about his fitness for professional sports and later about his culpability in a bar brawl that left a bystander critically injured. The negotiation quickly becomes a war of attrition, with principle and basic humanity on LeMarcus’ side, and the power of a corporation unwilling to risk its position or its profits on the other.

The first film this one evokes is Ivan Reitman’s 2014 “Draft Day,” in which an NFL general manager must navigate a seventh-round draft pick, his girlfriend’s newly announced pregnancy and the legacy of his father’s legendary coaching career. Reitman’s film is a bemusing chess game in which Kevin Costner’s character is trying to control the board, and maybe that’s why it’s more pleasant (and ultimately more memorable) to navigate than this one; notwithstanding the thorny real-life politics of student athletics and the billion-dollar college-sports industrial complex, Waugh wants to empathize with each of the characters involved in this negotiation, or at least for audiences to understand their POV with the same clarity as everyone else’s, and it muddles LeMarcus’ perspective in a way that makes you want to throw up your hands instead of taking sides.

Given its geographic limitations — the characters consistently gather in small rooms or contained spaces for serious, hushed conversations — it’s understandable to assume this was another pandemic production. But the story, written by Adam Mervis, was based on his own play. Waugh, who directed the third film in the “…Has Fallen” franchise, has a lot of hustle as a filmmaker but not enough precision to draw out the individual threads of each character’s motivation or investment, much less the skill to weave them together into the complex logical and ethical tapestry that the subject deserves, or at least demands.

Meanwhile, a synopsis of Mervis’ original play calls it a comedic drama, a tone which either the writer did not translate or Waugh ignored altogether; mind you, it’s unclear exactly how this subject would be explored in an even vaguely “funny” way without transforming into a feature-length episode of “Ballers,” but the film is virtually humorless outside of a few chummy exchanges between players and a re-enactment of the “Ezekiel 25:17” scene from “Pulp Fiction.”

To the film’s credit, it uses Simmons in a markedly different way than anyone who has seen his Oscar-winning performance in “Whiplash” would possibly expect. Rather than leaning on his terrifyingly authoritative bona fides, he’s coaxed to deliver a turn that feels like a halfway point between his role in Damien Chazelle’s debut and the dad he played in Jason Reitman’s “Juno,” determined to get the game back on track, sincere about his care for his players, but desperately clinging to what until now was the only thing he thought he could rely upon. James is a bit of a cipher as the principled quarterback, who of course has just enough skeletons for the NCAA to hang over his head in exchange for abandoning the strike. But the young actor continues to seek interesting projects en route to finding ones that utilize his talents as well as, say, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Meanwhile as Katherine, Uzo Aduba preps her Oscar reel with a performance that vacillates between a kind of ruthlessness that actresses seldom get to explore and a painful identification with the plight of athletes toiling in LeMarcus’ shadow that she exposes in an explosive monologue.

Of course, if you haven’t been paying attention to the news in the last six months, you wouldn’t know that the quandary at the center of this film has at least in part been resolved; student athletes now can and do receive compensation for some of their activities. It’s hard to exactly know if that undercuts the weight of this morality play or simply delays its impact, but ultimately Waugh doesn’t give it the oomph needed to bring home the emotional weight of LeMarcus’ decision to launch the strike, much less the concentric circles of repercussions that do (and don’t) result in it.

Is the title “National Champions” meant to be an ironic comment on the control and commerce around collegiate sports, or simply a winking answer to the possible outcome of a game audiences never get to see played? Viewers may not think they know the right answer, but unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the filmmakers do either.

“National Champions” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.