Linda Cook review: ‘National Champions’ is a winner

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This solid, smart sports movie has few scenes of football, except for televisions in various spots, but lots of sequences of tension.

“National Champions” is a drama – streaming now after a brief stint on the big screen – about two college football players with a cause.

Missouri Wolves quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James, “If Beale Street Could Talk”) and his best friend and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) decide to lead a players’ strike right before the national championship game. Their complaints involve what they say are injustices in the system: Millions are made off the players, who are not paid and whose bodies are injured. They don’t receive health-care insurance.

The system, LeMarcus says, is “capitalism at its finest, greed at its worst.”

Tweets fly, phones blow up, and the powers that be gather to discuss how the game can go on while the two players try to coach other players to go on strike, too.

Especially hard-hit is the coach of the Wolves. Coach Lazor (J. K. Simmons) lives for the game, and truly loves his players. His devotion to the game and his team has left his marriage to his wife Bailey (Kristen Chenoweth) on shaky ground.

My favorite character is played by Uzo Aduba (“Orange is the New Black”) as attorney/consultant Katherine. She steals the show with an Oscar-worthy performance that includes a superb monologue that take a far different approach than the one LeMarcus does.

Other excellent performances are turned in by James has bone-deep rectitude, and Simmons is magnetic. Ludwig provides Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, and Timothy Olyphant.

Simmons is his usual outstanding self in a performance almost as intense as his Oscar-winning role in “Whiplash.”

This is a thoughtful story at a national sports issue that plays out behind the scenes and not on the field.  

3 1/2 stars

Running time: Just shy of two hours.

Rated: R for foul language and sexual situations.

Streaming on demand everywhere.

Watch the trailer here.

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