Can their friendship survive their crimes against each other?
In 1957, the Scranton High School basketball team won the Pennsylvania State championship. Since then, teammates George Sitkowski (Bruce Dern, The Trip), Phil Romano (Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas), James Daley (Stacy Keach, The Ninth Configuration), and Tom Daley (Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now) have reunited with Coach Delaney (Robert Mitchum, Ryan's Daughter) for one evening of fun and romanticizing the past.
Things have changed since 1957. George is now mayor of Scranton, facing a tough reelection. James and Phil don't see eye to eye on how to manage the campaign. Tom has returned to town after a three-year absence. Betrayals and backstabbings are about to be revealed during the course of their 1982 reunion. Whether their friendship will be able to survive these problems remains to be seen.
That Championship Season is based on a Broadway play by Jason Miller, famous for his portrayal of Father Karras in The Exorcist. Miller was a great playwright long before he became an actor. Having spent over ten years trying to bring this adaptation to the screen, he finally got the green light from The Cannon Group, a company headed by Menahem Golan, a former Roger Corman protégé. After becoming rich distributing slick exploitation films, very few of which were great (or even good), Golan and his partner Yoram Globus decided to follow in Corman's footsteps and make the company respectable. (Corman had gone through the same dilemma with his own New World studio in the '70s, and had struck upon the idea of distributing top-notch foreign and art films.) Cannon's approach: find top filmmakers and give them creative control over their product. Some films released under these auspices were Robert Altman's Fool for Love, Barbet Schroder's Barfly, and a string of films from Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (Shy People, Duet for One, Runaway Train, and Maria's Lovers). Golan and Globus offered Miller this proposal, and he accepted the opportunity to make his directorial debut with this 1982 film.
Miller's direction is low-key and simple. It's the correct approach, as any fancy flourishes would distract from his material. He retains the ingredients that made the play work on stage, while opening the scope up enough to keep things interesting and fluid. His greatest success is with the acting. There are five excellent performances to be found, all by actors who have been underrated, and still are today. The late Robert Mitchum has always been a personal favorite of mine; his laid-back, "make it look so easy" style of acting has been more influential than people think. His Delaney has a dignity and strength most cinematic coaches have rarely been given. Bruce Dern has been good for a long time, but few realize it. His portrayal of George is a difficult one, as he must make a basically unlikable protagonist appealing to the audience. He succeeds beautifully. Paul Sorvino's Romano could be a distant cousin to his Paulie in Goodfellas. The amazing aspect of both Dern's and Sorvino's performances is that they are real people rather than caricatures. Martin Sheen is in fine form as Tom Daley, but Stacy Keach gives the film's best performance, as the seemingly straight-minded and "normal" person of the group. Of course, he has a great deal of personal hurts and feelings that haven't been exposed. This performance came shortly after Keach's breakthrough role of Kane in The Ninth Configuration, and it confirms that Keach was one of the unsung acting talents of the 1980s. (Of course, his drug addiction and subsequent prison term in England couldn't have helped his career. But that's another review.)
Side one of the disc contains a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer, while side two contains a pan -and-scan version. The widescreen version was screened for this review. I do not understand why MGM still refuses to add anamorphic enhancement to all films presented in the original aspect ratio. The extra enhancement would have helped produce a sharper image in this case. The transfer, as it is, has more grain than I would have liked. Some edge enhancement is evident at various points in the film. Colors actually look sharp, which is a surprise considering that this was a low-budget affair. It's not a bad transfer and I'm glad to have had the chance to see That Championship Season in widescreen.
Audio is an unremarkable Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix. Some dialogue scenes are mixed far too low, resulting in some fiddling with the sound system just to be able to hear it. The soundtrack is mainly clean, although there is some hiss on the soundtrack during scenes without music or dialogue.
Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. It's in poor shape, but then again, so are most trailers from this long ago. I can understand the lack of a commentary track considering that both writer/director Jason Miller and co-star Mitchum are now deceased. But surely a featurette containing the surviving actors would have been invaluable, especially since Bruce Dern has contributed interviews for other MGM discs. It would also have been nice to offer the 1999 remake on Side Two, instead of a pan-and-scan version of the original film that few will actually bother watching. The remake, directed by Paul Sorvino (who also assumed the Mitchum role) and updated by Miller, is also worth seeing.
That Championship Season is the type of disc that warrants a rental rather than a purchase. It's an excellent film, but the DVD presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Still, if you must, the $14.95 suggested retail price is harmless enough for your wallet.
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