2005, PG-13, 130 min. Directed by Thomas Carter. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Ri'chard, Rob Brown, Debbi Morgan, Ashanti, Rick Gonzalez, Antwon Tanner, Nana Gbewonyo.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Jan. 14, 2005
This b-ball drama deserves high marks for its unimpeachable intentions – "Part of growing up is making your own decisions and living with the consequences," the script reminds us – and there are worse things for MTV Films to do with its deep pockets than dramatize the story of Ken Carter (Jackson), the inner-city basketball coach who locked out his entire undefeated varsity team because the low grades of some of its members made college recruitment unlikely. Come to this movie for the prominent hip-hop soundtrack and glossy sports action; leave with a message about teamwork, decency, and self-respect scorched into your brain. Too bad Coach Carter isn’t a better movie. Director Carter (no relation to his subject, I presume – although it’s worth mentioning that Carter is Austin-born and Southwest Texas State-educated), of the interesting youth dramedy Save the Last Dance, has a beast of a story on his hands – too many build-ups and turning points, too many dead-weight subplots – and he responds with the kind of formulaic narrative shorthand that gives the sports genre a bad name: big speeches, beat-the-clock finales, slow-motion entrances, eyeglasses removed dramatically, training montages, scowling authority figures (principal Denise Dowse), and a huddle of nonspeaking players whose purpose is to respond thoughtfully to Jackson’s guidance while glistening with prop sweat. Jackson sells it, of course, but none of the actors has a bit of breathing room. Not pop diva Ashanti in her much-vaunted debut as the pregnant girlfriend of a promising player (Brown). Not Gonzalez as the wild-card gangbanger who quits and rejoins the team more often than Jackson removes his eyeglasses dramatically. Not Ri'chard (Light It Up) as Carter’s son, who feels estranged from his father – a frequent occurrence among sports-movie families – and transfers schools to join his team. Tanner (The Wood) does make an impression as the team’s requisite goofball; his vitality and presence suggest that he’s inhabiting a character more multidimensional than the script imagines. And the script is really the heart of the problem. Writers Mark Schwahn and John Gatins have a teen-movie pedigree (lightweight fare like Summer Catch and The Perfect Score), and they’ve kludged the film’s true-life material into a conventional three-act shape instead of reimagining it as cinematic.