Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Thomas Carter

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Rob Brown, Nana Gbewonyo, Rick Gonzalez, Robert Ri'chard, Antwon Tanner, Channing Tatum, Ashanti, Debbi Morgan

MPAA Rating:  (for violence, sexual content, language, teen partying and some drug material)

Running Time: 2:16

Release Date: 1/14/05

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Either real life is becoming more like a movie, or sports movies inspired by a true story exist in their own form of reality. Coach Carter tells the story of a basketball coach who takes a losing team andócue the inspirational musicóturns them into winners both on and off the court. This formula can work; it has in the past. For that to happen, though, it has to find something beyond the formulaósomething that does bring it out of the realm of movie reality and into our own. On an even more fundamental level, the way to judge the level of success of these movies is how interested we are in the story between game scenes, because for some reason, it's easy to generate a certain amount of involvement on the court/the field/in the ring/etc. The difficult part is to make characters who seem like a means for sports action into ones whose lives outside of the gym give us reason to root for them. On that level, Coach Carter neglects its characters, leaving development of their lives to a select few and putting those few into situations that feel more like filler than actual personal crises.

The Richmond High Oilers have not had a good record, winning only four games last season, and it's time for a change in management. Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), a record-maker when he attended Richmond, is looking into possibly taking the job as their new coach, and after watching them play his son Damien's (Robert Ri'chard) high school St. Francis and witnessing the game almost turn into a brawl, he can see they are in dire need of some leadership. He decides to take the job, under a few conditions. The players will sign a contract agreeing to keep a minimum 2.3 grade point average, go to every class, and sit in the front row. He will have access to progress reports on all of his players from their teachers to make sure they are honoring the contract. This announcement doesn't go over too well at the first practice, and Carter loses a few players right off the bat, including last year's high scorer Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez). In Carter's mind, this is only a minor setback, and he starts the team on a regiment of hustling up and down the court and game fundamentals.

Needless to say, the team does a turnaround by focusing on the basics, and their progress is shown in quick-cut sequences of basketball action. The problem with these scenes is that they are generic. Director Thomas Carter (no relation) can film the highlightsódunks, three-pointers, the game winning shot, and the series of passes that lead up to themóbut there's no sense of context to them. Never do these sequences feel like a game, only a highlight reel, and as much a letdown these scenes are, the bulk of the movie consists of the players and their coach off the court. Here Mark Schwahn and John Gatins' script shows familiarity and simplification. Damien transfers to Richmond, and after the initial debate between he and his father, his only purpose is to be caught later with the team at party after winning a tournament. The only players' lives to have any screentime are Cruz and Kenyon Stone (Rob Brown). The former has an obscure relationship with his cousin involving money being passed underhand, while the latter tries to manage his life with pregnant girlfriend Kyra (Ashanti). Neither story effectively conveys the difficulties and perils of life outside of the school environment, which is the entire purpose of such scenes.

The movie finds some footing when Carter discovers that members of his team have been skipping class and failing to honor the GPA requirement of their contract. In response, Carter locks up the gym, cancels games, and sends his team to the library instead of practice, where teachers are awaiting to set the boys' academic lives straight. Carter tells them startling statistics of graduation rates, college admission denials, and prison sentences, and his logic just makes good sense. Samuel L. Jackson has that kind of intensity that figures can actually mean something to these kids, and by taking the time to focus on Carter's tactics to better their futures, the movie shows a conscience beyond the usual concepts of respect, teamwork, and winning games. Of course, that cannot last for too long, because a movie about a basketball team who goes undefeated for most of the season and then spends the rest of the picture bettering themselves just isn't made. So, Cruz finds his way back, Stone's conflict with his girlfriend is relieved in an insultingly simplistic way, and there's the obligatory big game in which more of the game is shown than before, but this time it comes across as an extended highlight reel.

The movie even ends with a coda telling us what happened to the half or so of the team that did go off the college, and from Carter's reciting of statistics earlier, it doesn't seem like much of a change from the status quo. That somewhat depressing thought aside, though, Coach Carter doesn't muster up much inspiration.

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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