Director Thomas Carter's story of a basketball coach's mission to remake high school athletes, Coach Carter, is practically a throwback to movies like Boys Town and To Sir, With Love. For this reviewer, a simple tale of a goal-driven man of principle beats a million-dollar downfall any day.
Despite its fouls, and the whistle blows more than once, Coach Carter takes a direct, man-to-man offense that works over the toughest resistance to sappy sports dramas. Based on the true story of Ken Carter, a top basketball player who returned to high school to coach a team of hooligans, One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn's and Hardball screenwriter John Gatins' script is clear, honest and daring. Director Carter (Swing Kids, Save the Last Dance) injects several shots of adrenalin.
Coach (Samuel L. Jackson) is a self-made businessman who lives by moral absolutes. In the middle-class of a poor California city, he has known athletic glory, made money and, with a sharp son (Robert Ri'chard, shining in a tough role) and a supportive girlfriend (smart, sexy Debbi Morgan), he's living a good life. He's also a natty dresser and a real man, and he's not about to waste time granting pity to the undeserving.
Early on, when Coach's attire nets a derogatory reference to the N word, he snaps back with a few lines that lets the brutes know this is one member of the faculty who doesn't substitute familiarity with gangsta rap culture for doing his job. Call him Sir Coach-a-Lot.
This bunch of locker room losers need guidance and discipline; as a team, they're a pre-pubescent group of changing voices and pent-up anger raised by unwed mothers and crack dealers in broken homes and filthy haunts. We've been down this dark alley before—from The Blackboard Jungle to Dangerous Minds—but fear lives in these boys' eyes, not just in their postures. They dribble, they jostle, they strut—and they each know their hearts beat at the whim of whatever's sliming around the next lamppost on the way home from practice.
As Coach Carter, Mr. Jackson's layered performance is a slam dunk—the type that's not likely to be noticed by limousine liberals—with a broad range of emotions beneath a hardened exterior. This dude is twice as tough as Shaft, whether staring down a scrawny but lethal thug (Rick Gonzalez, in a raw and moving act) or talking down the school's union-mentality principal (Denise Dowse). Yet Coach Carter aims to rack up a victory on and off the scoreboard, and academic performance comes first.
Among his demands: the kids and their parents sign an agreement to achieve decent grades in order to play ball. When some of the teammates violate the contract, Carter takes on the whole blasted town, a mob of parents and public school bureaucrats that treat playing ball as a kid's destiny, a view which Coach regards as contemptible determinism. Confrontations come in waves, with a tournament, a romance, a showdown and the big game, of course, and it's not as easy to call as one might suspect. A gymnasium scene highlights the movie's theme that good choices, not environment, make a man's character.
Plenty of game ought to satisfy the sports fan, but this is not a sports movie and player individuality develops off, not on, the court. Editing is director Carter's weak spot, with noisy soundtrack songs—it's an MTV co-production—droning over unnecessary shots of cheerleaders and fans, though instrumental music is actually good when it's allowed to play. A pool party drags the progression and talented Miss Morgan (Eve's Bayou) as Coach's squeeze is reduced to cheering in the stands.
Singer Ashanti, in her movie debut, is not ready for the screen, though she gets better when her character makes one of the boldest choices in a movie about the role of making choices. She doesn't match Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) whose role as her bright basketball player boyfriend is one of the best. Channing Tatum as the token white boy also stands out. In a season of drunks and doomed athletes, Coach Carter is an entertaining picture that provokes thought, laughter and empathy while shooting its hoops—and that's worth a million.