A story of wayward youth transformed by a pedagogical maverick, "Coach Carter" comprises another installment in the ongoing adventures of Superteacher, ghetto edition. Based on the story of an actual Richmond, Calif., high school basketball coach who benched his undefeated team until some of its members got their grades up, "Coach Carter" falls squarely in the group-Pygmalion tradition established by Sidney Poitier in "To Sir, With Love" and faithfully carried on by Morgan Freeman in "Lean on Me," Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds," as well as countless others, in which a lone-educator-who-cares rides into the mean streets of town to battle complacent parents, craven bureaucrats, low expectations and moribund systems, and single-handedly save the school day.
As a tamer of the blackboard jungle, Samuel L. Jackson comes across as a little bit square himself, playing Carter strictly as the brand-new sheriff in town. Although he's not above the occasional wisecrack — Coach has a way with the targeted zinger — for the most part, he's a martinet of the drill sergeant/martial arts commando/Tae Bo instructor school. Though, to be fair, the actual Ken Carter has moved on to a career as a motivational speaker and self-help author, so for all I know the corny hardball inspirational stuff is dead-on. The real problem is not with Jackson's performance, anyway, it's with director Thomas Carter's and writers' Mark Schwahn and John Gatins' vision of the character; an archetype as workable, comfy and familiar as an old shoe. All good qualities in footwear, soporific in characters. While Jackson is nowhere near the absurd caricature played by Morgan Freeman in the hilariously over-the-top "Lean on Me," Edward James Olmos (whose dedicated math teacher in "Stand and Deliver" was a sly, subversively schlubby revelation) has nothing to worry about.
The boys on the team are as cute as only thugs-who-are-just-scared-kids can be, and they infuse the movie's many rousing, heart-stopping game sequences and considerably less exciting scenes of teen drama with a kicky, adenoidal energy. This starts to flag toward the end, however, mainly because "Coach Carter" never really ventures past the standard cinematic clichés about inner-city youth to say anything new, or even to say anything old differently. "Coach Carter" skips insight and instead goes leaping for the dime bags and drug deals and drive-bys, oh my. If you've spent a week with CBS' prime-time lineup, you've heard this tune a million times. Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez) gets all the best juicy, at-risk scenes, which he dives into with concentrated relish. But it would be great to see him cast radically against type sometime, in a role that didn't require him to nervously shove wads of bills in his pocket.
After an early run-in with the coach, for instance, Cruz begs to be reinstated on the team, and Carter assigns him a near-impossible calisthenics load. In a classic "Spartacus" turn, the others pitch in to help, taking some extra push-ups for the team. This crystal-clear gesture is unnecessarily girded with a lengthy explanatory speech about the power of teamwork. As a movie, "Coach Carter" is not unlike your basic commencement ceremony: unassailable in its intentions, edifying in its speeches, reassuring in its outcome and terrifically long-winded. It's also as predictable as, though probably more insidious than, the private school version of the same story. Had "Coach Carter" been set at the kind of institution where boys wear crested blue blazers, the movie probably would have spelled redemption Y-E-A-T-S, and trumpeted as its gentle lesson the importance of stopping to smell the humanities once in a while. But "Coach Carter's" kids don't need poetry (or A.P. calculus, for that matter) so much as they need militaristic discipline and the transformative effects of repeated use of the word "sir."
These things, Ken Carter supplies by the hearty lungful. A two-time Richmond High record holder, he sends his own studious freshman son, Damien (Robert Ri'chard), to the swanky St. Francis School, Richmond's rival. Damien wants to transfer, but dad isn't thrilled with the idea. "It was rough when I went here. It's way beyond that now," he says. By which he means he's now spending his days knocking kids who address him as "dawg" and get all up in his face against a wall. But Carter capitulates when the boy slides him a formal contract agreeing to maintain a 3.7 grade-point average. It's much like the one he's made one up for the team, only the players are shooting for a more modest 2.3. That's just 0.3 grade points higher than the school requires, but it's enough to prompt the requisite angry PTA meeting scene.
I don't think it's giving away too much to reveal that despite initially reluctant kids, and the intrusions of unsupportive parents and boneheaded administrators, the triumph of the human spirit prevails. "Coach Carter's" intentions are, naturally, unimpeachable. And it does diverge from the standard movie morality in a pregnancy subplot involving the team's most promising student, Kenyon Stone (Rob Brown) and his girlfriend, Kyra (Ashanti). But something about once again seeing the cowboy ethos applied to a story about class and poverty in America rankles. (The San Francisco Chronicle reported last month that despite the real coach Carter's newfound success, "the team still struggles to buy basketballs.") So, while the movie at times warmed my own middle-class, private school-educated cockles to a toasty complacency, there's an undercurrent of friendly fascism running through it like a nasty draft. Everything I know about life in the inner city, I learned from the movies. And all the morals of the stories have been as tidy, consistent and well behaved as if coached by Carter himself.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language, teen partying and some drug material
Times guidelines: The usual perils of inner city teendom, portrayed not too graphically; one violent shooting scene.
Samuel L. Jackson...Coach Carter
Rob Brown...Kenyan Stone
Robert Ri'chard...Damien Carter
Rick Gonzalez...Timo Cruz
Nana Gbewonyo...Junior Battle
Channing Tatum...Jason Lyle
Paramount Pictures presents an MTV Films Tollin/Robbins production, released by Paramount. Directed by Thomas Carter. Executive producers Van Toffler, Thomas Carter, Sharla Sumpter, Caitlin Scanlon. Producers Brian Robbins, Mike Tollin, David Gale. Screenplay by Mark Schwahn and John Gatins, inspired by the life of Ken Carter. Director of photography Sharone Meir. Editor Peter Berger. Music Trevor Rabin. Costume design Debrae K. Little. Production design Carlos Barbosa. Running time: 2 hour, 20 minutes.In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times