Friday, May 11, 2018

Champion (2018)

Director: Kim Yong-wan
Notable Cast: Ma Dong-seok, Kwon Yul, Han Ye-ri

There is a moment in the second half of Champion, a film that follows the sports mold formula almost exclusively to a ‘T,’ where there is a little television program that is going through the history of our hero Mark, played with fantastic depth by Ma Dong-seok. This is, inherently, not an unusual piece for the dramatic sports film. It is meant to dig into the hero’s past, even so briefly, before the final showdown so that all of the characters in the film along with the audience are given as much emotional weight as they can carry before leaping into the dramatic and tense finale where hopefully it all pays off. Champion does its best to subvert the drama with enough humor throughout to give it a bit of its own spin, in a cheesy way, and it’s here that it reaches its own strange height. During this segment, the announcer talks about how Mark faced adversity as he grew up and that he was something of an outcast, but it was one movie that changed his life and lead him to start arm wrestling for the glory that would this final tournament in the last act. That film was Over the Top.

It’s a move where Champion actually addresses its own flaws. Over the Top, starring Sylvester Stallone, was about as cheesy as a sports film gets with its story of a truck driver/arm wrestler attempting to rekindle a relationship with his son. It was hard for audience members, at least those familiar with the 80s Sly film, not to draw comparisons even from the trailers. While the film certainly succeeds in a lot of ways as a film, it was this moment where it references its own inspirations that won me over. It’s a film that knows what it is and it’s unafraid to just embrace that. Like it or not, that’s respectable.

He can handle this weight...
This recognition of its foundational elements, as a sports film and familial drama, allow Champion to compete on all of its levels. The film is cheesy, relying on the formulas of the genre to generate a consumable product for mainstream audiences, but Champion is brimming with heart, humor, and dynamic characters. Those more in tune with the sports film will find it ultimately predictable, hitting all of the main tropes of the narrative and even going as far as essentially creating a slew of two-dimensional characters for most of the antagonists and other throw away roles. Still, the film has charm to spare. The humor is remarkably on point and the familial drama has plenty of emotional heft to carry the film through its rougher patches of narrative that fail to inspire the kind of tension or suspense in the “gambling/loan shark” portions of the script that it could have used to maximize its impact.

With all of that in mind, both in terms of its decent sense of visual style, charming characters, and predictable script, Champion does have one giant ace in its sleeve that sends it over the edge. Ma Dong-seok owns this film. Not only does he bring that physical presence to the film for the actual arm wrestling and action sequences, but he embeds a real and nuanced performance into the character that sells all of the cheesier moments, problematic narrative spots, or formulaic concepts. His chemistry with all of the cast is infectious, his comedic timing is spot on, and he punctuates the heart of this film. His performance is impressive, to say the least.

...but what about emotional weight?
Of course, when it’s all boiled down to its bare bones, Champion is a film with a flawed core, but so much charm and self-realizing entertainment to completely snag its audience. Powered by a phenomenal lead performance from Ma Dong-seok and slathered in a great sense of heartfelt drama, comedy, and sports action, it’s easy to see why this film would resonate with mainstream audiences. For those looking for a companion piece to Over the Top or just a solid family friendly film, Champion comes highly recommended.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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