Movie review: 'Pride'

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3 stars (out of four)

Out of a foamy sea of inspirational-sports-film cliches, Terrence Howard pulls "Pride" to safety. It's a deft rescue. As much as any top-flight actor working today, Howard lends a touch of silky class to everyone he plays, rich or poor, saint or sinner or in-betweener. Even when portraying a killer in fabulous threads, as he did in "Idlewild," Howard doesn't indulge himself in flourishes from the "larger than life" drawer. Lots of people can play larger than life. The trick is playing life, or something like it.

What happens in "Pride" is essentially what happened with Mark Wahlberg in the inspirational football film "Invincible," which was set in a different neighborhood of 1970s Philadelphia: The leading actor keeps the cliches from messing up the story. Howard plays Jim Ellis, founder of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim team. The way the movie version of Ellis' story has it, he takes a city job at the Marcus Foster recreation center, scheduled for demolition in two months. Its unused, empty pool nags at Ellis, whom we see in the film's 1964 South Carolina-set prologue as a young swimming phenom running headlong into bigotry.

Doing his best Redd Foxx, Bernie Mac plays Elston, the crusty rec center maintenance man, who aids Ellis in getting the pool cleaned up and filled and then peopled with local neighborhood candidates for a swim team. The script, written by many hands, doesn't throw you any curveballs. As Coach Ellis guides his team to the nationals at the University of Baltimore, he must contend with his own temper as well as his desire to one-up the coach of a snippy preppy racist championship swim team. This rival coach is played by Tom Arnold, who never has to work hard at being unlikable.

Sports films as a rule get nervous about having any coach utter a single bit of technical know-how during practice sessions. This is why Gene Hackman kept saying things like "Stick to the fundamentals" in "Hoosiers." In "Pride," Howard is all about "Stay focused!" though he is allowed one scene wherein he passes on some specific pointers to his swimmers. The rest of the time the actor makes the most out of axioms such as: "If your legs get tired, let your heart do the rest." It applies also to Howard and Mac. When the script's legs get tired, the actors do the rest.

Zimbabwe-born director Sunu Gonera, making his feature film directorial debut after reams of commercials, keeps "Pride" chugging with some gently parodic visual cues evoking '70s-era pictures. (The score does the same with aural cues.) It must be said that his climax risks unintentional laughs: During the key race, a nervous Howard, outside the building, is joined by one cohort, then another, until you wonder if everyone's going to leave the building. They do, in fact, but in a way that signifies a massively happy big finish to a sports movie that is not one for surprise. Except that Howard, playing an inspirational and resourceful man up against long odds, really is an inspiration.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Pride'

Directed by Sunu Gonera; screenplay by Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe and Norman Vance Jr.; cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Billy Fox; production design by Steve Saklad; music by Aaron Zigman; produced by Brett Forbes, Patrick Rizzotti, Michael Ohoven, Adam Rosenfelt and Paul Hall. A Lionsgate release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: PG (for thematic material, language including some racial epithets, and violence).

Jim Ellis - Terrence Howard

Elston - Bernie Mac

Sue Davis - Kimberly Elise

Bink - Tom Arnold

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