Samuel L. Jackson almost never gets to carry a film. The chief attraction of “Coach Carter” is that he does.
As Ken Carter, a sporting-goods store owner who coaches a nearly hopeless basketball team, the Richmond Oilers, Jackson gets to play about 99 different variations of Stubborn. He’s obstinate with his wife and son, he kicks one kid off the team for being mouthy, he sends the rest of them off to do thousands of push-ups, and he cancels games by locking the doors to the gym.
Carter is committed to the idea that “student athletes” should be students first and athletes second. When they skip class and their grades lag, he administers his uniquely demanding variety of toughlove. He’s also less than tolerant when the team gets invited to a suburban pool party that’s been arranged by a seductive basketball groupie.
Jackson clearly connects with this showy part. Even when Carter appears to go too far, and his tactics inspire a showdown with parents, teachers and administrators, Jackson brings such authority to his decisions that you can’t help giving the character the benefit of the doubt. His ideas may seem eccentric, even self-destructive on the surface, but he often makes more sense than more experienced educators.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t tell us much about the people he’s battling and sometimes terrorizing. Carter’s son, Damien (Robert Ri’Chard), who drops out of a rival school in order to join dad’s Richmond team, is a sweet cipher. When one team member (Rick Gonzalez) becomes involved in a fatal shooting, and another impregnates his girlfriend (Ashanti), the movie approaches soap opera.
John Gatins and Mark Schwahn’s script is based on a true story, though much of it feels predigested and slickly “inspirational.” The real Carter made headlines in 1999 when he benched his entire undefeated team for skipping classes and getting poor grades, and the movie takes some pains to demonstrate how his harsh treatment boosted their academic performance.
It’s ultimately less about basketball than it is a story about a remarkably effective educator. In that respect, it has more in common with such fact-based films as “Stand and Deliver” and “Lean on Me” than its does with high-school sports movies. If you’re interested in court action, look elsewhere; except for the final game, which predictably provides the movie with its final drama, the focus is on learning, studying and building a future based on knowledge.
That’s an admirable goal. Still, the spectacle of several “F” students suddenly earning “B-minus” grades, and thereby becoming eligible to play crucial basketball games, comes off as pure fantasy. The story is true, yet the director, Thomas Carter (“Swing Kids,” “Save the Last Dance”), fails to make the turnaround convincing. The picture was produced by Paramount, but it feels more like Disney.
At two hours and 16 minutes, “Coach Carter” is also much too long for its simple story. With the notable exception of “Hoop Dreams,” perhaps no basketball movie should be allowed to run longer than two hours.