Review: Michael Shannon Is Just About the Only Thing Worth Watching in Heart of Champions

Like many, I’ll watch Michael Shannon in anything. And I have proven this time and time again. Case in point, the new film from director Michael Mailer (Blind) and writer Vojin Jaja, Heart of Champions, in which Shannon plays the coach of an Ivy League crew team circa 1999 who also happens to be an Army veteran, making him extra tough, as I’m sure most crew coaches are in real life. As far as I can tell, this story is not based on real-life events, so I’m a bit confused why it even exists except to give Shannon a chance to show us there is nothing he can’t be mildly compelling in.

Heart of Champions
Image courtesy of the film

Set in 1999 (for reasons I cannot decipher), Heart of Champions features a team that has a habit of starting each race strong and crapping out in the final stretch, often losing to Harvard in the championships. The problem seems to stem from each rower concentrating too much on their individual effort and less about how in sync the team needs to be to power through to the end of a match. Team leader Alex (Alexander Ludwig) is the son of a rich father who meddles in the team’s affairs to get Alex a spot on the next Olympic crew team, making both of them pretty unpopular among the rest of the team. The team favorite, John (Alex MacNicoll), is now dating Alex’s ex-girlfriend and actually seems better suited to be captain. And newcomer Chris (Charles Melton from “Riverdale”) has no interest in racing crew any longer, but is being forced to in order to keep his scholarship. Coach Murphy (Shannon) steps into this personnel nightmare and has to show these pesky, egocentric jocks how to work together to win races again.

There are hints about Murphy’s history in the military and how it intersected with Alex’s father; Chris has a whole host of personal problems in his backstory, which seems appealing to Ash Santos’ Nisha, even though she’s planning to leave school to go home to the UK at the end of the year; and shockingly enough Alex has daddy issues that torment him daily. There comes a point in Heart of Champions where the film becomes less about the sport and more of a college soap opera, and thankfully Shannon appears to have little patience for those stories, instead focusing on being a hard-ass instructor. And if we all learn a little something about the intricacies of crew, all the better, I suppose.

In the realm of sports movies, Heart of Champions is a bit of a stinker, but there is something weirdly watchable about a stinker featuring Michael Shannon. He never phones in a performance, even when he’d be within his right to do so. Even reciting cliché-ridden dialogue like the words found here, he finds their truer meaning and makes certain it doesn’t get lost in this film’s efforts to convince us of the spiritual significance and uplift that comes from rowing a boat. I’m certainly not recommending this movie, but if one of your missions in life is to see as many Michael Shannon appearances in films and television as you possibly can, well, good luck with that.

The film is now playing in select theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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