VOD Releases: Champion (2018) - Reviewed

Directed by Kim Yong-wan and starring Don Lee, Champion is a film that is well-intentioned but more than falls flat on hitting its mark. It could easily be described as the Rocky of arm-wrestling movies, if such a thing doesn’t already exist, yet every emotional beat within the film rings false.

Lee plays Mark, a former U.S. arm wrestler who was kicked out of the league and is now working as a bouncer and several other security jobs in Los Angeles. When his friend Jin-ki (Kwon Yul) offers him the chance to compete in Korea, Mark reluctantly agrees and his not-really story of redemption begins. We find out he was adopted, and later he reconnects with his half-sister and her children; the family he’s never known but always wanted.

Lee does his best with the sub-par material he’s given and manages to make an otherwise forgettable character compelling, finding a truthfulness in his performance particularly when he spends most of the movie brooding. Still, you can tell that the character is conflicted, but we’re not really shown a good or valid reason why. He was given away for adoption, yet the way his story is told it’s as if he’s the one who had kids (he didn’t) and gave them up for adoption. In other words, the amount of regret and remorse he feels doesn’t exactly fit with, or match, his backstory. Is he a lost soul? Absolutely. But there’s a sadness to him that doesn’t quite work, which is a shame given Lee’s clear talent.

The other fatal flaw in Champion is -- and this might come as a shocker – arm wrestling just is not that cinematic. Every match lasts mere seconds, and the final dramatic showdown (if we can call it dramatic) is about five seconds of total time stretched into maybe a minute, give or take, of, well, arm wrestling. There’s the slow motion, time freezing, heart beating, sweat dripping moment where it all looks like could go a certain direction. Whether or not it does I won’t spoil here (we are spoiler-free, after all), but suffice it to say that resulting film feels like anything but an actual win.

Yong-wan brings a certain intriguing visual style to the wrestling scenes, but the editing -- especially in the beginning -- is quite jarring and does nothing to serve the story. The pacing is all wrong; frantic, even, for a film that seems so intent on following its main character as he mopes around and contemplates his life. You could argue that Champion’s heart is in the right place. Everything else about it, unfortunately, is not.

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-Matt Giles