Friday September 29, 2000

     You can tell by its mock-epic title, one that hints at heart-stirring endeavors. You can tell by the advertising material, with its soft-focus image of star Denzel Washington looking heroically off into the distance. You can tell by the fact that Denzel Washington is in this in the first place. Yes, it's true, "Remember the Titans" finds producer Jerry Bruckheimer in an inescapably serious mood.
     Apparently not happy at being typecast as, in the words of his official bio, "one of the most successful producers of all time . . . with worldwide revenues of over $11 billion in box office, video and recording receipts, more than any other producer in history," Bruckheimer is determined, he says, to develop "smaller films, cutting-edge stories that explore issues not generally seen in mainstream filmmaking."
     So "Remember the Titans" does without car chases, explosions and the other crowd-pleasing staples that characterize Bruckheimiana. It's not about the end of the world but about how two high school football coaches, one black, one white, brought racial harmony to a divided community. It's even based on a true story, but to little avail: The result remains transparently a Jerry Bruckheimer film from beginning to end. Which means that anyone expecting anything cutting-edge will have to settle for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" in cleats.
     Though critics are not usually his biggest fans (a situation the producer seems to relish), being a Bruckheimer film is not all a bad thing. Like the best of the rest of his output, "Remember the Titans" (directed by indie veteran Boaz Yakin in classic Bruckheimer style) is a shrewd, pulpy crowd-pleaser. Engagingly cast, with a lively soundtrack and glossy cinematography (by Oscar winner Philippe Rousselot), it also features Washington, as big a plus as a film can have.
     Someone who never sets a foot wrong, Washington is an actor it's impossible to remain unmoved by. Even in a conventional role as one tough hombre of a football coach, a straight-talking, square-shooting 1970s family man who says things like "you're overcooking my grits" when he's irked, Washington makes us believe no matter how cornball the situations become.
     Of course, the shameless moments in "Titans" do come in thicker and faster than footballs from a shotgun offense. With signpost dialogue (Gregory Allen Howard has the writing credit), characters of a single dimension and more male bonding than a Super Bowl's worth of beer commercials, this story is no less predictably cliched for being unconcerned and easygoing about it. It's almost as if the more honest "Titans" tries to be, the sillier it gets.
     Though most of the film takes place on a football field, "Titans" opens at a cemetery in 1981, and then, with the help of a voice-over by the adult version of one of the characters, flashes back to Alexandria, Va., in 1971, a time when "high school football was a way of life, bigger than Christmas."
     That was also the year when, by court order, T.C. Williams High School became integrated. This news was taken especially hard by the all-white football team, whose players made free with sentiments like "I don't want to play with any black animals."
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     Worse, however, was yet to come for these good old boys. The team's beloved white coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) was going to be replaced by Herman Boone (Washington), a black coach who had come up from South Carolina expecting to be an assistant. Yoast's 8-year-old wiseacre tomboy daughter Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere) is especially peeved at this turn of events, but in truth both Yoast and Boone are as equally unhappy at the arbitrariness of the school board-mandated decision as she is.
     But when those hostile white players threaten to sit out a year and thus harm their chances for college scholarships, Yoast swallows his pride and accepts Boone's offer to coach the team's defense. This is the first hint of one of "Titans" themes: These guys, despite differing skin color, have an awful lot in common. Imagine that.
     Not that they don't have their differences. For one thing, Boone is so much of a strict disciplinarian that the more kindly Yoast is moved to say, "There's a fine line between tough and crazy and you're flirting with it." But when Boone marches his exhausted charges to the Gettysburg battlefield (yes, that Gettysburg) during summer football camp and makes a stirring peroration about the necessity of coming together to avoid destruction, Yoast knows he's working for the right man.
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     Though that camp forges the beginnings of unity on the team, the small-minded, kissing-cousin-to-the-Klan nature of Alexandria society (at least as it's portrayed here) threatens to tear things apart when the boys come back home. Can the team stay together despite the hatred and turmoil swirling around them, can they fight racism by their good example, can they learn that there is no I in team? No, those are not trick questions.
     As "Remember the Titans" goes along on its predetermined way, crowded with familiar types like overweight white lineman Lewis Lastik (Ethan Suplee), no racist because he was raised in New Jersey, and can't-keep-from-singing Blue (Earl C. Potter), it's hard not to wish that life was as, shall we say, black and white as it is portrayed here. It's not that these problems don't occur in real life, it's that things always seem so wonderfully, naively simple in Bruckheimer movies. And that, as likely as not, is where that $11 billion in receipts really comes from.


Remember the Titans, 2000. PG, for thematic elements and some language. In association with Jerry Bruckheimer Films, a Technical Black production, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Boaz Yakin. Producers Jerry Bruckheimer, Chad Oman. Executive producers Mike Stenson, Michael Flynn. Screenplay Gregory Allen Howard. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. Editor Michael Tronick. Costumes Judy Ruskin Howell. Music Trevor Rabin. Production design Deborah Evans. Art directors Jonathan Short. Set decorator Anne Kuljian. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Minnie Driver as Mona. Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Vanessa. Joey Lauren Adams as Ruby. Kathleen Turner as Verna Chickle. Denzel Washington as Herman Boone. Will Patton as Bill Yoast. Donald Faison as Petey Jones. Wood Harris as Julius Campbell. Ryan Hurst as Gerry Bertier. Ethan Suplee as Lewis Lastik.