- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

“Coach Carter” finds director Thomas Carter (“Swing Kids”) saluting a former high school basketball coach named Ken Carter, who became a lightning rod for debate in 1999 when he benched his undefeated team, the Richmond (Calif.) Oilers, for neglecting their obligations in the classroom.

Though never deficient in bedrock human interest and topicality, the movie makes rather heavy sledding of the determination of Coach Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) to be an inspirational reformer and disciplinarian setting standards that players, parents and avid fans are reluctant to accept. The coach is prepared to forfeit games until team members upgrade their classroom performance. The movie leads us to believe that this earns him a rebuke from the school board but the grudging respect of his players.

Not a member of the faculty in a conventional sense, Ken Carter owns a sporting-goods store and agrees to moonlight for a small stipend, in part because he had been a mainstay of championship Richmond teams in the early 1970s. He still resides in the city, a chronically underemployed and predominantly black working-class community where oil refining and shipping facilities were once the principal industry.

Thomas Carter and his screenwriters juggle sustained subplots about selected team members and their stumbling blocks. These elements seem expendable, purchased at the cost of additional impressions of Coach Carter at home, at business or in conflict with doubters who desire only a winning team and haven’t bought into his insistence on academic dedication sufficient to maintain a 2.3 grade-point average.

The most heavily fictionalized and sensationalized character is a player called Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez), who has felonious family connections and quits the team at one point. Clearly, he’s meant to illustrate the lure and danger of criminal influences, but everything about him is overwrought, including Mr. Gonzalez’s precociously hammy emoting.

Rob Brown, also cast as a prep basketball player in “Finding Forrester,” is matched with the pop singer Ashanti in a subplot about teens who have complicated their lives with a pregnancy. The blunders here are an initially cutesy and then cavalier approach to the reality of a baby; ultimately, the filmmakers find it a “problem” too easily disposed of.

Scenes from team practice, game highlights and Mr. Jackson laying down the law provide the movie with its core entertainment value. Unfortunately, the story architecture proves more makeshift than streamlined. It would be helpful if the hero got to talk things out more systematically with the women who seem to be on his side — Debbi Morgan as Mrs. Carter and Denise Dowse as a harried and preoccupied school principal.

There’s one admirably realized encounter, in which the coach agrees to bend to a compromise suggested by Octavia Spencer as the formidably proud mother of one of his players. This scene works in a way you wish the rest of the movie could, especially when it’s off chasing idly prurient advantage by tagging along as the team is enticed to a pool party hosted by filthy-rich girls gone wild.

I suppose the coach might have been caught off guard by this escapade, but it seems an unlikely oversight, given his otherwise reliable vigilance.

**

TITLE: “Coach Carter”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, racial epithets and sexual candor, including a subplot about a pregnant teenager; fleeting graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Thomas Carter. Written by Mark Schwahn and John Gatins. Cinematography by Sharone Meir. Production design by Carlos Barbosa. Costume design by Debrae K. Little. Music by Trevor Rabin.

RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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