You can imagine the sense of glee producers Brian Robbins and Mike Tollin must have felt when they first heard the story of Ken Carter. A no-nonsense high-school basketball coach from Richmond, California, Carter became a national celebrity when he locked his undefeated team out of the gym because they were flunking their classes. Despite enormous pressure from the inner-city community, he refused to let the kids play until their grades improved. Carter's story was tailor-made for Robbins and Tollin, who previously produced such teen-friendly sports movies as Varsity Blues and Summer Catch. One can hear the pitch session already: "It's Dangerous Minds meets Hoosiers, with a dash of Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me."
Fortunately, the finished product turns out to be better than the Frankenstein's monster described above. Coach Carter is far from groundbreaking-in fact, it doesn't have an original bone in its body-but as inspirational sports movies go, it's not half-bad. At least screenwriters Mark Schwahn and John Gatins, as well as director Thomas Carter (no relation to Ken Carter) commit to the story's inherent clichés instead of pretending that they don't exist or, even worse, calling attention to them in the name of irony. By doing so, they're able to eke a few touching moments out of the many standard-issue subplots that make up the movie. Recruiting Samuel L. Jackson for the title role was also a smart decision. The actor is at his best when he's allowed to unleash his natural authority, and from the moment he strides on the basketball court here, there's no question about who's in charge. Jackson doesn't get the opportunity to show off his range in the part (as written, Carter is basically a one-note character), but he provides a strong anchor for the crowded cast.
Because this is the Hollywood version of Carter's story, his onscreen basketball team is made up of the usual collection of teen-movie stereotypes. There's the gangbanger in need of guidance (Rick Gonzalez), the son who only wants to please his father (Robert Ri'chard), the good kid torn between his professional and personal lives (Finding Forrester's Rob Brown) and, last but certainly not least, the designated comic relief with the dumb nickname (Antwon Tanner). The young actors all turn in solid performances, even if we already know how each of their characters is going to end up. It's particularly nice to see Brown, who brought a low-key realism to the otherwise completely unrealistic Forrester, back on the big screen. His character's dilemma-pursue a college scholarship or drop out of school to care for his pregnant girlfriend (Ashanti)-is the most interesting subplot by far and his relationship with his girlfriend is surprisingly well-handled. In general, the movie does a better-than-expected job covering the different challenges inner-city teens face, from gang violence to teen pregnancy.
Coach Carter's biggest flaw is its excessive running time. Clocking in at 135 minutes, the movie takes far too long to tell such a familiar story. There are at least a dozen scenes that could have been cut and the narrative unnecessarily builds to two climaxes before the film finally ends. Director Carter would have been wise to study last year's similarly themed Friday Night Lights, which contained a more potent mixture of sports and social commentary and was a good 20 minutes shorter. Still, the film's intentions are clearly in the right place and it manages to be entertaining while also delivering a message. Of course, teenagers are notoriously loath to attend movies where learning may be involved, but I guess that's what the basketball scenes are for.