For as trend-setting as MTV is supposed to be, its filmmaking division sure exhibits a remarkable devotion to cliches. “Coach Carter,” an urban hip-hop sports drama, is a mealy conglomeration of high-school-sports movies, teacher-who-motivates-students movies, and inner-city-kids-have-a-tough-life movies. It’s sort of “Dead Poet’s Society” meets “Hoosiers” meets “Lean on Me,” with every possible cliche ticked off as if the filmmakers had a checklist.
It was directed by Thomas Carter, who also helmed MTV’s “Save the Last Dance” in 2001. Both movies are marked by a serious, even sincere attitude, but hampered by mediocre storytelling. I just named three movies that, while not exactly original, still managed to be very good. You can use old materials to make something interesting; MTV just chooses not to.
“Coach Carter” is based on a true story that happened in 1999, though the film is set in the much hipper 2004. (1999 is so five years ago.) Samuel L. Jackson, in a PG-13 version of his badass self, plays Ken Carter, newly hired to coach the undisciplined, disorganized basketball team at Richmond High School, a poor school in a poor Northern California neighborhood. Carter owns a sporting-goods store as his day job and is paid only a $1,500 stipend to coach the team for the entire season. But he went to Richmond High himself, back in the day, and some of his basketball records still stand. He loves the game, and he wants to give something back to his alma mater.
The team is a mess. They won four games last season, lost the other 20, and more than one game ended in a fight — if not with the other team on the court, then back in the locker room, amongst themselves. One player, Kenyon (Rob Brown), has just gotten his girlfriend (played by a person called “Ashanti”) pregnant. Another player, a fiery Latino named Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez), is tangled up in drugs with his gang-banger cousin. In general, the team is bitter and hopeless.
Coach Carter shakes things up immediately. He addresses the players as “sir” and insists they return the courtesy. He has them sign contracts promising to be on time for practice, to maintain good grades, and to wear neckties on game days. He promptly, bodily ejects Cruz from the gymnasium for insubordination. When Cruz protests, “Teachers ain’t supposed to touch students!,” Carter replies, “I’m not a teacher. I’m the new basketball coach.” Jackson delivers the line as if he were saying, “I’m your worst nightmare.” Jackson is cool even when he has to tone it down, and even when the script gives him corny things to say.
Under Carter’s direction, the team has an unprecedented winning streak, the Cinderella story of the year. Alas, the players become cocky and let their grades slip — a direct violation of the contract. Carter puts a lock on the gym doors, makes the players join him in the library to study, and cancels an upcoming game. The school, the town and the parents are in an uproar.
The film was predestined to be generic: The writers, Mark Schwahn and John Gatins, are responsible for writing “The Perfect Score,” “Hardball” and “Summer Catch,” three movies that exemplify by-the-numbers filmmaking. With the director’s “Save the Last Dance” on his résumé, “Coach Carter” is probably even better than it should have been. It has moments of honesty, bursts of good acting, scenes of exciting sports drama. But then it always retreats to safety, to trite platitudes and obvious epiphanies. By the time it’s over (about 20 minutes after it should have been), when Coach Carter is delivering his standard “I’m proud of you, I came here to coach boys and wound up coaching men” speech, you’ll be watching the clock, waiting for it to finally run out.
C+ (2 hrs., 10 min.; )