There's the old value proposition that suggests if a little bit of something is good, then a whole lot of something must be great. Take that one step further and it must be true that a whole lot of different somethings mashed together into one unholy mess must be face-meltingly awesome...right? At least that's what director Siu Ming Tsui would like us to believe about his 2008 flick Champions. The truth, of course, is much more underwhelming and quite a few notches away from awesome.
Set in 1936, the film is focused around the first concerted effort by a Chinese Olympic team to make their presence felt at the Berlin Summer Games. They are a ragtag but spirited bunch including folks with vastly different backgrounds. An Ling (Priscilla Wong) and Lee Sam (Debbie Goh) are the stars of the track team while motor-mouthed Cheung (Dicky Cheung) and Kwan (Miu Tse) represent the wushu team (coached by Rongguang Yu). Everyone's excitement at being able to participate in the Olympics is dampened by the fact that the government just doesn't have enough money to send them all. In fact, the teams will have to raise half of a very large sum of money (which equates to, you guessed it, a large sum of money) in order to make their way to Berlin.
After laying the groundwork for the team's struggle to raise funds, most directors would have taken a break. Not Siu Ming Tsui (who gets co-writer credit along with Sai-Keung Fong)...no siree. He decides to pile on a whole other subplot and a silly little tangent just to amp up the film's action quota. The other major subplot is driven by a competition between a small army of martial artists who all want to take their rightful place on the Olympic wushu team. This is spurred on by the arrogant and obnoxious On Yung (Xiang Dong Xu) who simply wants to see his own sons take on prominent positions in the team.
Since this is also the sort of film that will repeatedly preach messages of unity and national pride until the closing credits, you just know that On Yung can't stay bad forever. He will eventually see the error of his ways and come into the fold. That's where the final silly tangent comes in. We get a throwaway bit about an evil gangster and his kidnapping scheme involving the child of the Olympic team's primary financial backer. As you can already tell, all three of the film's plot threads are tied together very loosely. At least one of them could have been easily excised, taking some of the fat out the film's roughly two hour run time. The obvious choice would be the rubbish about the gangster but that would take a fair chunk of the action scenes along with it.
And that's precisely the corner that Siu Ming Tsui paints himself into. He knows that the struggling Olympic team angle (inspired by true events no less) is what makes his film somewhat unique and gives it heart. Unfortunately he has a lot more fun filming the kung fu smackdowns complete with wirework and stylized choreography. As a result, all the mawkish melodrama and over the top patriotism gets shoved into the part of the film that needs no embellishment (because it actually happened!). Every action beat is followed by a scene that goes nowhere. Characters get injured and make ridiculous sacrifices because that's the only way you'll take the film seriously (or so Siu Ming Tsui thinks).
I've been pretty negative so far but let me give credit where it's due. Siu Ming Tsui, for all his pacing and plotting difficulties, has a firm grip on the film's action sequences of which there are plenty. Dicky Cheung and Miu Tse hold their own among veterans like Rongguang Yu and Xiang Dong Xu. Cheung is known for his television work so it's nice to see him stepping up to leading man status without skipping a beat (although he needs to lose that ridiculous visor). Similarly, Miu Tse who most will fondly remember as Jet Li's son in The Enforcer impresses with his physicality. Since his character isn't saddled with the charming cad persona that Cheung has to shoulder, Tse gets to deliver pure action chops without any fluff.
There's no denying that Champions is a frustrating film to contend with. It has a few bright spots but there is just so much going on that the positives are much harder to pick out and appreciate. I would be interested in a film that treats the 1936 Chinese Olympic team with honesty. I would be equally enthusiastic about a no-holds-barred Siu Ming Tsui action flick that just wants to pulverize me with kung fu excellence. I just don't want to watch both of those films at the exact same time.