Embracing the story of a tough high school basketball coach who pushes young men to their limits, “Coach Carter” is both an inspirational sports movie and an unexpected multi-level urban drama that plays by its own clock. Since the true story of Richmond High coach Ken Carter involves far more than hoops, pic’s adherence to the details, and willingness to follow characters wherever they go, account for a running time exceeding 2¼ hours. Younger urban auds enthusiasm may be questionable, but their parents and teachers will heartily endorse the self-improvement message, making for good theatrical B.O. followed by a 3-pointer in vid.
Carter’s (and son Damien’s) personal involvement in the production probably added a strong whiff of credibility to screenwriters Mark Schwahn’s and John Gatins’ on-the-nose dialogue and situations. Samuel L. Jackson, in the title role, lifts the film above familiar sports movie fare, however, imbuing a man who preaches the straight-and-narrow with magnetic appeal in portraying Coach Carter as an alluring rebel with equal parts charm and radical tough love.
Carter’s at first hesitant to take over the hoops spot at his alma mater, given that the Richmond Oilers stink on the court and fight when off of it. Sensing diamonds in the rough, he takes the post anyway, and gets down to the business of showing the squad who’s boss. Mouthing off is punished with calisthenics, the coach is always addressed as “sir,” and, most crucially, each team member must sign a contract to maintain a minimum grade average, attend all classes, sit in the front row, and wear a coat and tie on game day.
With Jackson delivering the edicts, nearly everyone gets in line except Timo (Rick Gonzalez), whose rebelliousness gets him booted out — and into the streets, where he deals drugs.
Director Thomas Carter (no relation) patiently follows the story’s internal rhythms, devoting a good deal of screentime to the step-by-step drills and exercises that mold the squad into a winning team.
But helmer Carter also dwells on various off-court relationships, such as the one between Kenyon (Rob Brown), a good student with dreams of playing college ball, and pregnant g.f. Kyra (pop star Ashanti).
A certain dramatic neatness irons out what might have been a much more unkempt film: Just as the team pulls off a tournament upset, the coach discovers most of his boys are failing their classes.
His decision to shut down the gym, force the team to study in the school library and enrage the locals is what made the real Carter into a folk hero when his story broke in 1999. At this point, though, the film becomes perhaps more surprising: The press isn’t made into a bunch of clowns, Carter’s critics have their say and the teammates grow into solid student-athletes gradually, not instantly. An almost exact replica thematically of the finale in “Friday Night Lights” may be accidental, but is still uncomfortably similar.
Jackson rules the kids, but they hold up with hearty perfs by Brown, Gonzalez, Ashanti and Robert Ri’chard as the coach’s son. Denise Dowse’s by-the-rules school principal is mired in the script’s most obvious points.
Even factoring the pic’s unevenness and itch to preach, it reps a formal and thematic leap from the soft fare produced by sports-crazy Brian Robbins and Mike Tollin. Richmond’s harshness is more suggested than real in a conservatively conceived production, with pro widescreen lensing by Sharone Meir. Some cool hip-hop selections make Trevor Rabin’s score sound silly.