Film Review: ‘The Champions’

Pit bulls rescued from disgraced NFL star Michael Vicks' illegal dog-fighting operation are spotlit in this polished advocacy doc.

Courtesy of DOC NYC

Nine years ago, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was indicted on federal felony charges of running a multi-state dog-fighting network whose cruelty extended to the executions (by hanging, drowning, electrocution, etc.) of “losing” dogs. But what happened to the 50 or so surviving canines found in deplorable conditions at his rural Virginia property? That question is answered at length in Darcy Dennett’s “The Champions,” a case-pleading documentary that argues that pit bulls are a dangerous breed only when deliberately abused. Dog fanciers and animal-rights advocates should take to this polished feature, primarily via home formats. FilmRise acquired worldwide rights last November, with digital, DVD and Blu-ray releases planned.

Soon after serving less than two years in prison, Vick was back on top thanks to lucrative new NFL and endorsement contracts, becoming a multimillionaire once again despite all prior criminal charges and bankruptcies. If things had similarly followed precedent for his erstwhile animal charges, however, they would have gotten no second chance: It is standard practice to destroy dogs rescued from such circumstances, as they’re considered too unstable to be adopted. Even PETA and the Humane Society of the U.S. recommended the whole lot be put down.

But the high-profile case provoked strong blowback from pit-bull defenders who argued that like German Shepherds (whose public image was rehabilitated by movie star Rin Tin Tin), Dobermans and Rottweilers before them, they’re designated as our era’s “bad dogs” simply because they’ve been singled out for ill treatment and training by bad owners. (’Twas not always so: Pits once had their own beloved film star in the “Our Gang” comedies’ ring-eyed Pete the Pup.) Several studies have shown that breed is not an innate factor in a dog’s inclination to bite or not. But the vogue for using pits as attack or guard dogs has typed them, to the point where some jurisdictions in the U.S. and beyond have passed “breed discrimination bills” specifically banning pit bulls as a potential vicious hazard. That “bad rap” (also the acronym of the prominent advocacy org Bay Area Dog-lovers Responsible About Pit-bulls) has further made them difficult for animal shelters to adopt out.

Fans insist they are in fact a loyal, social breed whose instances of hostile behavior can invariably be traced to owner misdeeds. Spared a death sentence after grassroots campaigning, some of the dogs from Vicks’ compound remained too traumatized to live outside specially dedicated animal sanctuaries. But others we see go on to thrive, whether making friends with the family cat, amiably tolerating pokes from the new baby, or visiting children’s hospital patients as an official therapy dog. They achieve such happy endings despite having started out physically and/or psychologically scarred from their fighting-ring ordeals, with zero formative memory of positive human interactions and a cringing terror of anything unfamiliar, from staircases to household appliance noises.

The five dogs spotlit here are winning personalities indeed, although “The Champions” could have done more to provide a thorough context on breed-specific abuses rather than simply serving up 90-odd minutes of heartwarming rehabilitation scenarios. There’s not much narrative drive on tap, and apart from occasionally returning to the subject of designated villain Vicks (who, as portrayed here, seems none too remorseful), we learn little about just how widespread dogfighting is today. Still, you’d have to be immune to canine charm not to be sufficiently entertained by the antics of the lucky dogs Dennett gives major screentime to.

Attractively shot and otherwise assembled with straightforward professionalism, “The Champions” is unabashedly an advocacy doc, but one that never gets too preachy or polemical. It should have a long life as an educational and fundraising resource for likeminded organizations.

Film Review: ‘The Champions’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Feb. 10, 2016. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival; 2015 Hamptons, DOC NYC film festivals.) Running time: <strong>93 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Fireflyfilmworks presentation. Produced by Darcy Dennett. Executive producers, Dennett, Elissa Jones, David Backes, Kelly Backes, Dana Edwards. Co-producer, Lindsay Rothenberg.
  • Crew: Directed by Darcy Dennett. Camera (color, HD), Justin Hanrahan; editor, Julio F. Lastres; music, Jeff Beal; sound, Spence Palermo, Nejc Poberaj, Roy Marasigan; re-recording mixer, David Wilson.
  • With: Susan Weidel, Rebecca J. Huss, Donna Reynolds, Tim Racer, Nicole Rattay, Steve Smith, Cris Cohen, Jennifer Long, Francis Battista, Michelle Weaver, John Garcia.