Thanks to Rocky, sports dramas revolving around an underdog character hold a special place in the hearts of many film lovers. When done right, they can move, uplift, and bring an immense amount of joy to audiences. However, on the flip side of that coin, when the execution isn’t strong, the films are stagnant and cheesy. Triumph now joins the long list of sports dramas, and the story revolves around a high school senior with cerebral palsy, Mike (RJ Mitte), making one last push at becoming a wrestler. Inspired by Michael D. Coffey’s true story, the film has a narrative brimming with potential, but the final product, unfortunately, doesn’t succeed in making this a film worthy of joining the list of great underdog tales.
Triumph opens with a very young Mike in a wrestling match, and while his dad and many who watch on are rooting for him, he ultimately suffers a crushing defeat that leaves him injured. The opening works in terms of introducing our brave protagonist, who has cerebral palsy, and the story as the scene gives audiences an opportunity to feel sympathy and emotionally invest in the narrative. Also, it allows us to understand Mike’s motivation and the drive to show that he can do what many, including his father, think he cannot do, and that’s wrestle.
Audiences will usually have expectations of seeing specific tropes in films like Triumph, such as the training montages, our protagonist’s transition to success, and, of course, an uplifting final match. What this film does well (at times) is it provides these moments in a slightly different way. In Triumph, even when things are looking up for Mike, he doesn’t miraculously become a strong wrestler. He still suffers defeat on the mat, but he keeps persisting. It’s a small detail that shows positives in a different way, as well as making the film feel more true to life.
Mitte’s performance as Mike is certainly a highlight, as the confidence and belief he shows as the lead character is charming, making him incredibly likable. At the same time, his physicality, particularly in the scene where Mike has an emotional breakdown and tries to force his hand into a more natural position, always brings audiences back to realising the character’s limitations. Making it easy for them to root for him in every situation. Also, Mitte’s chemistry with Terrence Howard, who is the shining light of Triumph, is one of the more enjoyable aspects of this film.
Terrence Howard is undoubtedly the biggest and best actor in this film, and it shows every time he is in a scene. Marvel’s former James Rhodes provides the film with much-needed stability. As his effortless blend of being firm yet caring makes his character the perfect person to guide Mike, but also the film, especially when it comes to enhancing some of the intense and emotional scenes.
Although Howard gives Triumph a boost when his character enters the story, it’s not enough to hide its flaws. Consistency is a problem, and an example of this is in how the film looks. From the opening scene, Triumph seems to have a problem with lighting. Bright lights almost take over, making it difficult to see some of the actors. Whether or not this is designed to be a symbol of some kind, it’s very distracting to the point it takes away from the work done by the actors and ultimately removes you from the story. In addition to this, the cinematography is toyed with far too much, and certain shots feel out of place as opposed to adding anything.
Triumph’s pacing is also weak, as the transitions to pivotal scenes, such as Mike’s fight with a school bully, feel far too sudden. This then doesn’t allow important moments to land, making scenes that follow, like the montage showing Mike and Jeff’s (Colton Haynes) growing friendship feel ice cold. In addition to this, the sports drama tries too hard to include specific elements, such as the “different kid’s” innocent romance with the pretty girl or that big heroic moment during the climax. Often, it’s the corny dialogue that’s inserted that makes it feel like the film is trying far too hard.
The story successfully shines awareness on cerebral palsy and hits home the message of not treating people that have the condition as incapable. However, when looking at the film as a whole, it’s not the triumph the creators hoped it would be. If you’re a fan of underdog stories or Terrence Howard, Triumph may serve as a decent one-time viewing experience. Otherwise, you may want to look elsewhere.
Triumph is released on June 28th