February 07, 1983 12:00 PM

Ten years ago Jason Miller’s That Championship Season finished first on Broadway, earning Miller a Tony award and a Pulitzer Prize. The play, about the boozy 24th reunion of a Scranton, Pa. high school basketball team that had been state champion, was a mordant treatise on success. But until now Miller could never get a film version going, and he turned to acting (The Exorcist, Monsignor) instead. Producers were afraid his intimate drama could never be opened up for the screen. The boys with the bucks were right. The film is a faithful adaptation. But playwright Miller has not been well served by first-time director Miller, whose reverence for his own words has created a static, stifling environment. What’s left is a handful of fine actors struggling to break through stage conventions. Stacy Keach and Martin Sheen are solid as two brothers with a grudge. Bruce Dern is less psychotic than usual as the mayor who doesn’t know he comes off like Bugs Bunny on TV. And Paul Sorvino (the only cast member who appeared in the play) adds sexist wit as a rich strip miner with a yen for married women—”They don’t yell, tell or swell and they’re grateful as hell.” The powerhouse performance comes from Robert Mitchum as the bigoted, dying coach who does his best to keep his 40ish boys, “my real trophies,” in arrested adolescence. Through the long dark night of beery confessionals, these actors can only suggest the sparks this drama gives off onstage. There it belongs, and there it should have stayed. (R)

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