The role of Jim Ellis, the steely-eyed swim coach who turns five scraggly teens from inner-city Philadelphia into a championship swim team, is the kind most actors would tear into like a well-cooked steak. But Terrence Howard comes at the part like he's stalking live prey. Handed a mess of rousing speeches and believe-in-yourself bromides, Howard plays to the front row instead of the cheap seats, rarely raising his voice, as if he expects his young charges to lean in and listen to every word.
It's a striking performance, not least because of how at odds it is with the movie it's in. "Pride," the first feature by the Zimbabwean director Sunu Gonera, wants to be an inspirational, by-the-numbers sports story, an underdog tale of triumph over prejudice inducing cheers with each push of a Pavlovian button. Howard seems to be in an altogether different and substantially more idiosyncratic film. When the story calls for him to be Patton, he plays Kurtz.
The real-life story of Ellis, a junior-high math teacher who has coached several swimmers from Philadelphia's struggling Nicetown neighborhood all the way to Olympic trials, has been stripped of its particulars and stuffed into a plain paper bag. Asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer how much of the movie was true, Ellis responded, "My name is."
Perhaps Ellis' life is not the stuff of pulse-pounding thrillers, but it could scarcely be less interesting than the prefab plot concocted by "Pride's" four credited screenwriters. When Ellis is rejected out of hand for a coaching job at the prosperous, all-white Main Line Academy, it's a sure bet that Ellis' black swimmers will do battle with Main Line's in the final reel. The confrontation is especially foreordained because the movie's universe (or, more likely, its budget) seems to have room for only two fully staffed swim teams. By the third time Ellis faces off with Main Line's cock-of-the-walk coach (a congested Tom Arnold), you half expect one of them to quip, "You again?"
Rather than kowtow to the movie's grandstanding, Howard plays against the grain, drawing on the vulnerable volatility he showed in "Hustle & Flow" and "Idlewild." His Jim Ellis is wounded and fierce, both scarred and motivated by an invented incident in which a teenage Ellis is barred from swimming at a meet in North Carolina in 1964, prompting a violent confrontation. The image of Howard's tear-streaked face pressed to the floor by a policeman's boot has a power that the movie never comes close to equaling, or earning.
If the other actors don't match Howard's eccentric intensity — at one point he comes upon a room full of disused lane markers and inhales deeply, as if sucking in the last few particles of stale chlorine — they manage surprisingly well given the thin material. Among Ellis' swimmers, Evan Ross stands out as the shy, stuttering Reggie, and Bernie Mac provides comic relief as the crotchety custodian of the crumbling rec center where Ellis starts up his program. It's a shame Gonera couldn't have made better use of his obviously talented cast. At times, he doesn't even seem to know how good their performances are. Why else would he feed Howard dialogue like "I believe in them so much" when the preceding shot of him gazing proudly at his fast-improving students has already made the point?
Gonera greases the wheels with a Philly soul soundtrack fitting the mid-'70s time frame and finds a passable analogue to Philadelphia's row houses in the shotgun shacks of New Orleans, where the movie was shot. But "Pride" wades into the shallows when it ought to be diving into the deep end. In waters this familiar, everyone knows how to swim.
"Pride." MPAA rating: PG for thematic material, language including some racial epithets, and violence. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minute. In general release.