Hollywood’s latest inspirational sports flick, the swimming drama “Pride,” has enough buoyancy to remain afloat, though without the vigor of Terrence Howard and the charm of Bernie Mac, it likely would sink in its own sea of clichés.
“Pride” offers a few small variations that set it apart somewhat, but this is a story we keep seeing over and over again — the underdog football hero, the impossible baseball rookie, the ragtag soccer champs, the unknown golfer who goes the distance.
This time it’s a group of inner-city black teens in the 1970s who are molded by a selfless mentor into a winning swim team that strikes a blow for race relations and equal opportunity.
Howard stars as Jim Ellis, the real-life coach who founded the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim team, which has brought focus and meaning to the lives of hundreds of black kids from impoverished neighborhoods over the last 35 years.
First-time director Sunu Gonera and a team of four credited screenwriters front-load the movie’s heaviest drama in a brief prologue, in which Ellis reacts with justifiable fury over racial taunts from a white crowd that doesn’t want to see him, a black kid, competing in their swim meet in 1964.
The tale jumps ahead 10 years as Ellis arrives in Philly with a good education and a desire to teach. Only no one will have him, so he takes what he can get, a temporary job overseeing the dismantling of a community rec center about to be closed.
There he meets janitor and resident curmudgeon Elston (Mac), who’s really an idealistic teddy bear in disguise. After a spat or two, Jim and Elston begin to bond, and the custodian quickly becomes an ally when Jim fills up the center’s old pool and tries to interest a few local basketball idlers in swimming.
Before long, they’ve got a cocky team of five young men and a spitfire young woman, the gang learning the ins and outs of sportsmanship and team bonding through Ellis’ endless stream of athletic cliches.
The story is completely predictable and shamelessly manipulative, despite a few dramatic flourishes and some violence and racial slurs that stretch the movie’s PG rating.
Standard sports ingredients abound, including a training montage in which the swimmers go from amateurs clowning around the pool to fierce competitors in just a few moments.
Kimberly Elise co-stars as a city councilwoman and sister of one of Ellis’ swimmers, who goes from skeptic to supporter and romantic interest for the coach.
The swimmers are given an archrival in the upscale white team from across town, led by a smug, condescending coach (Tom Arnold).
There’s also a half-baked conflict pitting Ellis against a drug peddler, the two men vying for control of the youths, and, by extension, the streets themselves.
The sentimental script forces Howard and Mac further into weepy territory than these two rough, raw performers should have to go. Yet they hold the movie together with great humor and camaraderie.
One of the real lessons in sportsmanship comes from watching Howard and Mac join up as true team players, with infectious rapport and genuine kinship.