A film review by Craig J. Koban


2005, PG-13, 137 mins.

Coach Carter: Samuel L. Jackson / Kyra: Ashanti / Timo Cruz: Rick Gonzales / Kenyon Stone: Rob Brown / Worm: Antwoin Tanner / Tonya Carter: Debbi Morgan / Damien Carter: Robert Ri'chard / Principal: Denise Dowse / Jason Lyle: Channing Tatum / St. Francis' Coach: Ray Baker / Kenyon's Mom: Gwen McGee

Directed by Thomas Carter /  Written by Mark Schwahn and John Gatins

COACH CARTER represents one of my more disdainful of movie genres – the resilient, intrepid, courageous, resourceful, and cunning teacher that overcomes all odds by taking on a group of disrespected misfits, instills hope and faith in them, all while battling the highly skeptical and scornful eyes of their parents and other respective teachers.  There is no denying the monotony of the formulaic genre that I will, for convenience purposes, refer to as DEAD POET’S SYNDROME, named after a film indicative of this genre to a hefty degree. 

You may remember that film starred Robin Williams as a literary figure that used highly questionable techniques in and out of the classroom, largely against his colleagues’ approval, and taught the ragtag group of students about life through poetry.  The boys, while showing their displeasure with Williams at first, eventually are won over by his affable charm and style, grow from boys to men, during which they must deal with the fact that their beloved instructor is getting chastised by his peers and bosses for what they deem “inappropriate” methods. 

COACH CARTER tells a story with the same level of repetitiveness and rigid sameness.  Watching the film distinct feelings of “been there, done that” emerged in my mind.  The film plays for its absorbent running time of nearly two and a half hours as a paint-by-numbers exercise in predictable and formulaic film making economy.  I guess that it is this genre’s preaching, sermonizing, and lecturing tone that I have always been taken aback to, and COACH CARTER takes great pains to be a social commentary about inner city kids and how their can overcome their own inherent fears and weaknesses to achieve final literal and moral victory, all while gaining the confidence and respect of their mentor.  Yes, COACH CARTER has its heart in the right place, but its wits seem largely vacant.   

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a film that has honourable and the very best of intentions in terms of being about something.  I think that what separates the good from the bad here is in its setup and follow-through.  COACH CARTER is a film where every aspect of its plot and story are predicated so routinely that it looks like it went to an all-you-can-eat sports-inspirational-high school-troubled teens cliché buffet and could not stop until it was full.

Every possible dish is served up here – outspoken and resilient teacher/mentor figure who’s hated by his new student; rebellious and wisecracking students who don’t give a damn about anyone or anything; parents of said witless and amoral teens that support their child’s athletic endeavours more than their scholastic ones; unorthodox and highly contentious methods employed by the teacher to get his students to learn their lessens; the uproar and shame that these methods create in the school’s faculty and kids’ parents; the students coming to the defense of their teacher when he faces expulsion for his questionable methods; and finally the kids learning the morals that the teacher has instilled in them which allows them to cry “checkmate” in the of game of life that once was fraught with unheard of trepidations. 

Yes, this is a genre that is a hard cinematic pill for me to swallow, and I have not taken lightly the type of pretentiousness and strident predictability that has emerged from these types of films.  Even ones with vastly different tones all feel the same.  DEAD POET’S SOCIETY was a drama, but was shamefully preachy and manipulative, and even recent popular comedies like SCHOOL OF ROCK had the exact same formula as DEAD POETS and was equally rife with forced sentimentality and a plot that went conventionally from A to B to C.  I guess, in essence, there is nothing really to distinguish COACH CARTER from the rest of these films that suffer from DEAD POET’S SYNDROME.  CARTER goes to every play in this genre’s playbook for inspiration and winds up being a largely disposable and redundant experience. 

Not only has this type of film been done countless times before, but the sports related themes have also been investigated too many times in the past.  In COACH CARTER’S case, it focuses on the sport of high school basketball.  At the film’s beginning we are introduced to a former two-time All-American Ken Carter (who is played very effectively and sensitively by the always dependable Samuel L. Jackson).  He runs a local sporting goods store in Richmond and has been recruited by his old coach at the local high school to take over his position as the boy’s basketball coach.  Why?  Well, maybe because the coach is getting old and can’t face the new sets of harsh realities and dilemmas that his highly contemptible players now present him.   

The players themselves look like discarded side-characters that have been dejected by old episodes of DeGrassi Junior High.  We get the usual plate of stereotypes thrown on on us, and when are screenwriters going to learn that you simply can’t humanize a story by offering up a list of stock characters with routine problems?  Yes, the script gives these characters “problems” and “issues”, but the personas themselves are never fully developed and instead are made into plot contrivances and not real people with dramatic weight.  We get the semi-obligatory illiterate student, the decent minded and gentle student who faces becoming a young father to his girlfriend’s child, and the boy from the hood that must battle whether or not he wants to make money on the street to buy him lots of bling-bling or focus on school and sports to really “be somebody”.  The latter character here and his story arc have the inevitability and obviousness that is setup with such a lumbering precision that it’s never a real revelation in terms of the ultimate choice he makes.  Oh, the one wrench thrown into the machine is Carter’s own son.  Hhe leaves his expensive prep school to move to the dilapidated Richmond High so he can stand by his dad and play for him.  Yup, sure, uh-huh. 

Well, when Carter comes to Richmond it becomes abundantly clear that it’ll be his way, or the proverbial highway.  Carter methods and goals are largely twofold – he wants to make a winning team out of the misfits, whose previous record was 4-16 the year before, and his paramount concern even over basketball is for the athletes to become great students to increase their chances of becoming somebody in life.  Sounds like a solid plan, and considering that the average inner city kid has a better chance winning the lottery than making it as a basketball star in the NBA, then Carter’s ideas don’t seem so foolhardy in retrospect. 

However, becoming winners on the court will have its obvious prices.  Carter, by his own admission, wants the Richmond Oilers to be a winning team, but in order to play for this “winner” he has a set of rules.  First rule – mutual respect.  Everyone will direct each other as "sir" and give and earn respect, and definitely, definitely not humorous refer to one another as that infamously notorious racist term that starts with “n”.  Carter at one point slams a petulant student for referring to him as a “nigger”, to which he responds, “That term is an offensive racist slur that offends our ancestors.  When you use it, you give white people the excuse to use it!” I consider this exchange kind of rousing and ironic, seeing as I applauded Carter’s condemning Africa Americans as a whole who perpetuate and use the term, but found myself incredulously reminded of how Jackson has made a career of playing characters that gleefully use the term with the subtlety of a flying hammer…but I digress.

Anyway, stage two of Carter’s rules – The hapless students are forced to sign a contract that is a triple whammy, of sorts.  They must maintain a 2.3 GPA, attend every class, and also must wear ties on game day (when a irate parent seems vindictive of the latter aspect, Carter dryly deadpans, “There’s a Salvation Army down the street with ties for 50 cents!”  I guess there’s always a way).  When it comes to discipline, Carter and MIRACLE’s Herb Brooks would hit it off famously.  Carter is a military tactician when it comes to conditioning, and any amount of tardiness (even by the second) to practice, or any smartass remarks or disrespect from anyone, then you get a do not pass go, do not collect $200, but you do get to do 200 pushups.   

Carter’s methods do pay off (no surprise there) and the Oilers go on to an amazing 16-0 record, albeit with a bit of cockiness on their part that Carter must quickly curb.  Then, at the height of the team’s success, tragedy strikes when the player’s report cards come in and they are abysmal to say the least.  Then, in a daring move, Carter locks up the gym, cancels all practices, and even forfeits games until the players can meet the needs of their contracts, get their marks up, and play again. 

Of course, the community of Richmond is utterly outraged and demands that Carter wise up and let the kids play, or face the angry and vehement verbal mob that will come.  When Carter continues to rock the status quo and cancels more games, the school principle becomes bitter and angry with Carter’s methods (another aspect of DEAD POET’S SYNDROME) and subsequently has a school/town meeting to “try” Carter and have a vote on whether to banish his methods and let the boys play (this hearings into the teacher’s methods, again, another aspect of DEAD POET'S SYNDROME).  Of course, when the board votes Carter down and opens up the gym, he soon discovers that, gasp, the players refuse to go back to the game until their marks go up (a move of student solidarity to support their mentor, again, another aspect of DEAD POET’S SYNDROME). 

The film also does not spare us of one moment where the most rebellious student stands up and gives a short, but impassioned, monologue about whey he stands by his teacher.  Along with a similar scene in DEAD POET’S SOCIETY where a student jumps on his desk and screams out to Williams, “Oh Captain, my Captain,”  this moment in CARTER has that forced and cornball sentiment that did not so much elicit stirring emotions as it did want to make me throw up. 

I am going to immediately stop my review here by saying that, even if you’re vaguely familiar with the conventions of the DEAD POET’S genre, you’ll have no problem seeing this film through to it’s logical conclusion.  I may have seemed very hard on COACH CARTER so far, but it’s not a completely wasted effort.  I do not recommend the film for it’s pedestrian plot, but I did like it for Samuel L. Jackson, who always sells the idea that he’s a man the has a earnestness and real heartfelt compassion for his job and students.  He always has a strong presence and an intensity that tries to fly over the film’s obviousness.  To be sure, the other performances are good and the film tries to be about something and embody a message.  Yet, COACH CARTER has standard run-of-the-mill material and, for all of its noble posturing and morality, the film really is nothing too innovative, emotionally charged, or invigorating.

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