Coach Carter (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The main problem with Coach Carter can be summed up simply: too much sermonizing. In a way, it's hard to fault the film, because its heart is in the right place. The movie wants to impress upon teenagers that education is the first step on the path to empowerment, and that it is possible for students raised in poor neighborhoods to escape from the vicious cycle of poverty and violence. But good intentions and a positive message do not always make for a strong movie. Coach Carter wants to be motivational, but it uses clichéd short cuts and stock characters to emphasize its points, and, in the end, the experience seems manufactured and scripted in a paint-by-numbers fashion, even if it is said to be "inspired by the life of Coach Ken Carter." (The phrasing of that statement indicates that considerably liberties were taken.)

As befits a movie with a lumbering 135-minute running time, Coach Carter brings together a number of familiar storylines. It's a sports movie crossed with a crusading teacher movie, with a dose of the big-speech courtroom drama thrown in for good measure. Set the cauldron brew to boil, throw in some Dead Poets Society, Hoosiers, and Lean on Me, and the result will be Coach Carter. The film is devoid of even the most rudimentary of surprises. And, since that offers a certain comfort level, it will connect with some audiences. But trust me… if you watch movies regularly, you have seen it all before, and done better.

When former two-time All American Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) agrees to take over the coaching job at his old alma mater, Richmond High, he comes with an agenda. Coach Carter wants to put the "student" back in the term "student athlete." In addition to being winners on the court, he wants the members of the Richmond Oilers to be winners in the classrooms. To that end, he forces each of them to sign a contract that obligates them to maintain a 2.3 GPA, to attend every class and sit in the front row, and to wear ties on game days. When it comes to discipline, Coach Carter is ruthless - cross him, and it might mean 500 push-ups or more. He emphasizes conditioning and defense over offense, and his program works. The Oilers start the season in amazing fashion. Except for a little cockiness, which the coach does his best to curb, everything is going well - until the players' academic progress reports arrive.

In an attempt to humanize some of the characters, Coach Carter plunders the stereotype clearance bin, resulting in a bunch of unremarkable and largely uninteresting players. We have the borderline-illiterate senior (Nana Gbewonyo) who sees a chance for a college scholarship if he improves his academics. There's a decent-seeming young man (Rob Brown) who faces the challenge of teenage fatherhood after impregnating his girlfriend (Ashanti). A gang-banger (Rick Gonzalez) is torn between making lots of money on the street or playing basketball. And the coach's academic-minded son (Robert Ri'Chard) must bond with his less studious teammates.

Coach Carter's A-list actor, Samuel L. Jackson, is far from the top of his game. Other than a strong screen presence, he doesn't bring much to the role. His kinetic tirades recall his Pulp Fiction character, and his moments of quiet intensity remind us that Laurence Fishburne is a much better slow-simmerer. It's likely that Jackson took this role because he believes in the film's message; it's unfortunate that there isn't more subtlety in the way he portrays Ken Carter. Still, compared to him, most of the film's other stars are in the minor leagues. There's plenty of raw acting talent amongst the group playing the Oilers, but little in the way of polish. And singer Ashanti should heed the old maxim and not quit her day job. Her performance is awkward and self-conscious. She possesses charisma, but her acting is forced.

Coach Carter suffers from Bloated Running Time Syndrome - a problem that plagues many self-styled "important" films. Why tell a story in an hour and three-quarters when it can be stretched out by 30 extra minutes? The movie's first hour moves at a nice pace, but then a series of predictable complications bogs it down. And the emotional climax arrives 20 minutes before the end credits roll. (After all, there's still a big basketball game to be played.) The game scenes are filmed in a perfunctory, unimaginative manner, and there's never any real suspense about how things are going to turn out (except, perhaps, in the final contest).

Director Thomas Carter likes message movies. In his career, he has helmed at least two others: Swing Kids and Save the Last Dance. But Coach Carter is by far his loudest statement. But, as much as I applaud what Carter is saying with this creaky melodrama, it's hard to recommend the film. Is it inspirational? Perhaps, but so are many church sermons, and it's also clumsy and obvious. It's tough to give Coach Carter a passing grade.

Coach Carter (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 2:16
U.S. Release Date: 2005-01-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1