Friday, May 28, 2010

REVIEW: The Champions

The Champions
Director: Brandy Yuen
Year 1983

The Champions is a marvelously fun sports film with a huge emphasis on comedy, brought to us by Hong Kong director Brandy Yuen. The film stars Biao Yuen as an accident prone nobody that, because of a series of random events, becomes somewhat of a soccer elite among the ranks of a Hong Kong futbol league. It's abundantly enjoyable to watch Yuen's character, named Lee Tong, as he stumbles from one hairy situation to the next until he begins to master everything the film throws at him and in doing so establishes himself as a convincing lead and an expert player. I had a lot of fun with this film and truthfully wasn't expecting to be this blown away by this unknown soccer movie.

Biao Yuen walking the lonely streets of loneliness. Damn that's lonely.

The film starts out with Yuen's character, Lee Tong, performing in an event that asks the participants to run an obstacle course with their hands tied together while racing to the end of the gauntlet to obtain a small ball. During this exciting scene, Yuen's character accidently blemishes the honor of one of the participants and the entire crowd chases him home threatening to beat him silly. After his blunder, Lee is forced to flee his home and start a new life in another town, but things don't plan out like he hoped, for when he arrives he makes another social faux pas that sends his life into another chaotic mess.

Lee accidently makes a pro soccer player, Mr. Captain Fantastic or otherwise known as Mr. King, look like an ass when he clumsily runs into the famed futbol player and embarrasses him during a hilarious encounter that leaves King feeling like a fool. This random encounter soon sets up events that will come into play later on in the film. King is played by Dick Wei, whose character is a wonderful prick and the kind of person that is the complete opposite of Yuen's character Lee. Wei does an excellent job in playing a guy that you can't help but hate. He's been in a handful of great movies either playing a bit part or high profile character, but he always seems to give it his all. Some of his credits include The Prodigal Son, The Winners and Sinners films, Project A, Eastern Condors, and Mr. Canton and Lady Rose (otherwise known as The Canton Godfather or Miracles). These are all amazing flicks and it's quite an impressive resume that Wei has gathered throughout his career. In my opinion, his role in The Champions is by far his greatest effort and he really leaves an impression when performing the role of the total douche. 

Kwok Keung Cheung making Yuen an offer he can't refuse.

This film is carried by the more then capable shoulders of Yuen, but he's not alone in bringing this story to life. He's accompanied by an unlikely friend in the form of a young man named Suen, played by a charismatic Kwok Keung Cheung. Cheung does a tremendous job in this film playing the reliable companion and he presents some highly entertaining moments and comedic driven performances that really stand out in this film. I haven't seen too many films of his, but I'm looking forward to searching through his canon of roles and finding some more outstanding performances like the one he gives us in The Champions.

Both Suen and Lee meet after a misunderstanding that occurs when Yuen first arrives into town. They later clash again and surprisingly become friends after Suen encourages Lee to join his amateur soccer team. This is where the film really begins to pick up and we're treated to some spectacularly entertaining sequences that show one of the most brutal soccer games in the history of the sport. The match turns into a prison brawl where anything goes and penalties are a forgotten concept. The action is filmed superbly by Brandy Yuen and you really get a sense of being there, right in the thick of the confrontation. This is achieved by director Yuen's decision to film very low to the action and get right in to the fray. Legs and limbs flail, as random bodies struggle to reach the ball first and place it past the goalies impenetrable hands. The sequence is a gem and just one of many in this fantastic and unfortunately unknown film.

Let's get ready to RUMBLE!

The mixture of comedy and action throughout the film is a refreshing blend and it's all executed in an extremely entertaining way. I found myself having a permanent smile plastered on my face as each sequence played out. I give most of the credit to both Yuen and Cheung, because they work so well with each other and they have such a great report with one another that it makes every sequence that they're involved together, worth the price of admission. Their stand against the entire opposing team, after their own teammates abandon them, is just great and shows the early stages of their friendship and how they will watch each others back later on.

Things go a little to far when the skins team decide to drop their pants!

This film has many intricate aspects to it, giving us various events that effect the outcome of the future in unsuspecting ways.  When Suen and Lee decide to try out for the local professional futbol team, Lee is met with a shocking realization that the same man that he had bumped into earlier in the film, is in fact the captain of the squad that he is trying out for and one of the main judges at the tryouts. After another misunderstanding during the practice, Lee is mistakenly chosen to be on the team, even without showing any of his skill with a soccer ball. King is furious with this decision and vows to make Lee's life a living hell as long as he's on his team. There are so many misunderstandings that Lee's character gets himself into, but this reoccurring theme never gets stale or outgrows its welcome. The filmmakers always seem to introduce the mishaps with fresh and new approaches and we as the audience never get the impression that they're beating a dead horse with this repeating concept.

Well don't you all look spiffy in your sailor themed soccer uniforms.

After being banished to the position of the team ball boy, Lee begins to study the other players as they practice and he starts to build up his skills on his own. There is an especially wonderful scene where the rest of the team has ended their practice and Lee is sent to pick up the field and gather all of the balls. He does this, but in the most dazzling manner as he proceeds to kick all of the balls into the basket with some rather impressive moves. I know a lot of these tricks can be created with some premeditated camera work and editing, but some of these moves take a great amount of skill and Yuen pulls them off with ease. After watching many of his films where he displayed his acrobatic skills with such prowess and commanded such an impressive fighting style, I had no idea that he also had some sweet soccer moves.

Biao Yuen has the skills to pay the bills.

The plot begins to thicken as we're shown that captain fantastic isn't all that he's cracked up to be and we're shown that he participates in fixing the matches, even going so far as to fake an injury so that Lee can be substituted into the match. At this point in the film, no one on the team has witnessed Lee's skills, so they all assume that he sucks pretty bad, but you know what happens when you assume. You make an ass out of U and Me. Lee ignites on the soccer field and quickly scores his first goal, sending the rest of his teammates to stand and stare in shock. These moments when Lee is unleashed onto the field are special and are plotted out with such magical glory filled moments, that parallel the fantastic sights of the 2001 film Shaolin Soccer, only scaled down to reality. 

Bench-warmer Yuen craps his pants in anticipation of being put in the game.

After surprising everyone with his tremendous skill and winning the game for his team, his teammates are less then thrilled with his antics. They all have a stake in the fixed game and they thank Lee appropriately enough with a full on beating in the locker room after the game. Lee fends off his attackers and escapes with his life only to now be a player without a team. The film tackles some pretty interesting issues like for instance the corruption that can turn a great game like futbol into a political farce of scoundrels and betting fools. I love how they approached this material, starting out with a fairly light comedic flavor and then they slowly begin delving into the unpleasantness of fixed games and false heroes. It gives the film a meaty structure and provides the narrative with many layers for it to work with in the entire scheme of the story. It's rather impressive for what seemed at first as a fun comedic sports romp.

We want you! We want you! We want you for the new recruit!

Yuen's character, once cast from his old and corrupt team, finds another club that will take him in and this one seems to be the real deal and plays for the sheer love of the game and not for the politics and money of it. They even recruit Lee's friend Suen and the two of them become renown in the league and begin racking up the goals, propelling their team to the number one spot. At the heart of this film is a believable underdog story, following the rise of both Lee and Suen as they prove everyone wrong and slowly become one of the most respected soccer players in their junket. The growth and journey that the two main characters take is inspiring and it's a joy to watch.

Alright, let's stop meditating and get to practicing some soccer.

Even though the film steps over into some darker territory, as things begin to heat up with several attempts on both Lee and Suen's life in the wake of their success, we are given some memorable comedic scenes in which the light hardiness of the film begins to shine through again. The contrast between these opposing moments are quite interesting and should be rather jarring for the audience, yet they seem naturally placed and never appear to displace the viewer from the story.

One of these comedic turns occur when Lee and Suen decide to barge in on King's turf at a disco that he often frequents. They proceed to outshine him in every way possible, by smoking bigger cigars, having more women around them as entourages, and even sporting the bigger bling as they reflect their diamonds, blinding King as he tries to ignore their attempts to fluster him. This all leads up to an epic dance off that even Dancing With the Stars would praise for its effort and flare. The comedy is spot on and works so well in this scene that you can't help put get caught up in the goofy fun. It's just one of the many things that seem to work so well in this film.

Step up bitch! Bring it! (Insert cliched dance off quote here.)

Tensions flare as Lee and Suen's team face off against King's team in a grudge match to prove once and for all, who the better team is. This is a pretty good finale as sports films go, with all the characters putting it on the line in the name of pride to show who can come out on top. The film's done a tremendous job in building our anticipation for this match and as all sports movies go, we wait for the big payoff and we're fortunately not let down. There's some pulse pounding sequences in this pinnacle match where we aren't sure who is going to win and how they're going to pull it off. There's also many twists and turns which send the audience in a loop over what the outcome will be. It's a testament to the director's patience in being able to weave this story that we are now so invested in and a commendable and believable performance by the two lead characters that have made us believe in them up until this point. Needless to say the film succeeds in making us care for the outcome of this climactic match.

Who just farted?

It naturally comes down to just one moment in time, where everything hinges on one play that could make or break the team of our two heroes. The filmmakers do an excellent job in making us feel the impact of this moment and we really get a great sense of urgency that is essential and strongly needed for this suspenseful moment. The entire film is a perfect balance of so many diverse elements. The comedy, the action, and the drama are so expertly balanced that I was quite taken aback at how well they pulled it off. For a film that I had never heard of in my life and one that I had to hunt down over a course of many days, I wasn't expecting much in the form of cohesive narrative and emotional pull, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a film that delivered on all fronts. This is definitely a movie that rewards the viewer in every way possible and projects a sense of fun that is few and far between in this cinematic age.

Suen admits that he did indeed fart.

The Champions is an excellent portrayal of the classic underdog story with enough essential elements within the narrative to satisfy any discerning sports film fan. I went into this film, just hoping to see a few random moments of fun and maybe a single scene of greatness, but what I came away with was a completely fleshed out story that had depth and heart, and enough entertaining qualities that it makes the entire run time of this film fly by. Biao Yuen and Kwok Keung Cheung are the heart and soul of this film and their friendship portrayed in this film is reminiscent of some of the classic buddy films that have come out throughout the years. Their honest approach to the material and straightforward performances make their characters and their intentions both intriguing and sympathetic, giving us someone to truly root for and believe in.

This is one of the finest comedy sports films that I have witnessed in recent years and I'm putting it right up their with Shaolin Soccer as one of the most entertaining soccer movies out of China and even the world. I highly recommend this one for any futbol fan or asian cinema lover, because their truly is something for everyone within this film.

4 out of 5 stars          A Great Unknown Soccer Gem!

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