2005-01-20 / Arts & Entertainment

“Coach Carter” Is ‘Rousing, Crowd-Pleasing And Breathless’

Samuel L. Jackson (center) portrays an inspirational, but controversial, high school basketball coach in a film based on a true story.                                                       ©2005 Paramount Pictures Samuel L. Jackson (center) portrays an inspirational, but controversial, high school basketball coach in a film based on a true story. ©2005 Paramount Pictures By Christy Lemire

AP Movie Critic

You pretty much know what you’re getting when you walk into a sports movie that bills itself as “an inspirational account...inspired by a true story.”

And with “Coach Carter,” you pretty much get that: The story of Ken Carter, the basketball coach at Richmond High School in a tough section of the San Francisco Bay Area, features rousing, crowd-pleasing moments and breathless buzzer-beating action. It’s also full of the obligatory speeches about turning athletes into students and turning boys into men.

The difference here is that the person making those speeches is Samuel L. Jackson. He’s not threatening to strike down upon anyone with great ven-geance and furious anger, as he did so famously in “Pulp Fiction.” He has dialed down his wrath, but despite his character’s overly polite practice of calling everyone ma’am and sir, he’s still a formidable presence.

Jackson avoids melodrama — it just isn’t part of his repertoire — and director Thomas Carter, who previously directed another MTV movie, “Save the Last Dance,” for the most part does the same, though he could have trimmed the film by about a half-hour.

The result, like the recent “Friday Night Lights” and “Miracle,” is a movie that manages to transcend its predictable, by-the-numbers structure, even though its tough-love themes inevitably will remind you of “Stand and Deliver” and “Dangerous Minds.”

As told by screenwriters Mark Schwahn (creator of the WB series “One Tree Hill”) and John Gatins (“Summer Catch”), the rigid Carter is hired to coach the dismal Richmond High basketball team, for which he was a star player in the early 1970s.

These kids are failing both on the court and in the classroom, and he immediately sets out to fix both problems. He works them harder than they’ve ever worked before, with endless drills, sprints and push-ups, and he forces them to sign contracts requiring them to maintain at least a 2.3 grade point average.

Everything seems to be going great in the film’s first hour, which includes the de rigueur montage of practices and victories as the team cobbles together a surprise undefeated season. Carter’s innovative tactics include naming strategies after his ex-girlfriends and sisters. He also kills his players with kindness and tricks them through reverse psychology, tactics familiar to his son, Damien (Robert Ri’chard), a freshman who has pulled himself out of private school and enrolled at Richmond, just to play for his dad.

Then “Coach Carter” becomes a totally different movie when Coach Carter realizes that several of his players haven’t been upholding their end of the contract academically, with the complicity of their teachers and parents. He padlocks the gym, forces the entire team to meet at the library to study and cancels games, drawing the ire of parents and the community, who just want to see a winning team.

If all this hadn’t actually happened, it would sound too impossibly feel-good to be true. While Jackson plays a huge role in making the film believable, the casting is exceptional all the way down the line.

Rob Brown, who made his acting debut starring with Sean Connery in “Finding Forrester,’’ is quietly confident as one of the team’s stars. R&B singer Ashanti, who plays his pregnant teenage girlfriend, proves she can act beyond the meager skills she’sdisplayed in videos opposite Ja Rule. And Rick Gonzalez (who played Spanish in “Old School”) provides a palpable nervous energy as a student torn between the easy camaraderie he enjoys on the basketball team and the easy money he makes helping his cousin deal drugs on the streets.

Take a guess which one he chooses.

“Coach Carter,” is rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language, teen partying and some drug material. Running time: 137 minutes.

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