The history of arm wrestling movies is filled with… Over the Top. That’s basically it. Cinema’s disinterest in this sport isn’t really a surprise. Two people trying to push the others’ arm down isn’t the most visually arresting activity. Over the Top tried to make do with the star power of Sylvester Stallone and a variety of strange and wild opponents. Champion blows that film out of the water by making us care about its main character and those around them instead. The film’s hero could be arm wrestling, he could be a competitive eater, it doesn’t matter. The film is so well made, you’ll still be crying tears of joy by the end.
Champion tells the story of Mark, an oversized Korean working in America as a bouncer. Years earlier, Mark was a professional arm wrestler expelled from the sport when a racist competitor had him framed for cheating. The film begins with Mark’s ne’re-do-well buddy Jin-ki talking him into returning to Korea to compete again and maybe make some money. There’s no hero’s journey bullshit here. Mark agrees before the title card even hits.
Mark grew up an orphan, and along with busting arms, he also uses this visit to finally meet his biological mother. He learns she has passed away but begins a familial relationship with his half sister and her two small children. Meanwhile, Jin-ki’s fast-talking hijinks get him into mild trouble with local gangsters. Eventually, Mark trains for and participates in an international arm wrestling competition.
I am aware that none of that sounds all that great. Champion is a film absolutely teeming with cheesy sports movie cliches, but does them well enough to remind you why these tropes came along in the first place. Raw synopsis does a disservice to the massive amounts of charm and heart on display. This is the kind of movie you always hope for - a breezy, fun showstopper that takes you on a full emotional journey filled with great jokes and lovable characters. It’s so entertaining and goodhearted, I simply can’t imagine disliking it.
Much of that entertainment comes from Mark himself, a gentle giant played by Train to Busan 's Ma Dong-seok. With his hangdog, innocent disposition, Mark is shy but confident, kind but quiet. Much is made of his size throughout the movie (people rudely commenting on it becomes a solid running gag), but he often seems almost like a child. The couple times we see him fight, he rarely throws punches, preferring instead to just shove people out of his way, as if nudging a fly off his skin rather than smash it. There is an impressive dignity to Dong-seok, and if we don’t start seeing him in big action films soon, it’ll be a huge shame.
Dong-seok doesn’t carry the film alone however. He gets generous aid from the riskiest of co-stars: cute children. Simply put, Champion features the best child actors I have seen in a long while. I might not be as impressed if it were just one great kid, but there are two. Whether bouncing off adults or each other, their lines are hilarious but not precocious and their delivery feels perfectly natural.
While the film has no chance but to be compared to Over the Top, the Stallone film this really shares the most similarities with is actually Rocky Balboa. There are strong themes on making family where you find it. The film isn’t all that interested in training and competition until the very end. The normally quiet Mark even gets to have a couple emotional, Balboa-esque speeches when pushed too hard. And, like all the best Rocky movies, you’ll get a lump in your throat from watching a good person triumph rather than fail.
Movies this entertaining always make it look easy. But if that were true, Champion would not seem so special. I adore it and wish I could watch it again right now. If you find the chance to do the same in the future, I wouldn’t pass it up. This is the kind of film that can brighten your whole day.