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Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Casual Critic — Coach Carter

Samuel L. Jackson and a theme of basketball — an actor who has appeared in a few movies I like and my favorite sport — gave me hope that Coach Carter would help supress my building reluctance regarding sports movies and books. But with a story that seemed to miss the main reason this true story had ever hit the headlines and played up as many clichés as it could without becoming fiction, the film merely strengthened my growing desire to avoid such entertainment options.

Ken Carter (Jackson) returns to his old high school in the tough northern California city of Richmond to turn a squad of underachieving misfits into winners, both on and off the court. Success on the court comes must faster than it does in the court, leading the coach to shut down his team until his players all meet the academic standards they agreed to. Standards set by Carter are higher than those set by the school.

There is just nothing all that special about this film, except for the fact that it is based on a true story. It falls into the inevitable trap of almost every sport-themed film: basketball is basketball. We get the tough-guy coach drilling his team, and pushing them to extremes. A lot of it seemed like a modernized, hip-hop version of Hoosiers, even to the point of showing similar drills and endless running to be fresher at the end of games.

Strangely, Carter's "lockout" of his players until they reached certain standards, which is apparently what brought his story into the national eye, never really feels like the center of the story. This is what made the story different, fresh, and while it was certainly dealt with, the lockout didn't get the attention it should have.

According to the DVD documentary, the lockout became a political volleyball. The California governor, Rush Limbaugh, and the Today Show all got into act. I don't necessarily think the film needed a cameo by Katie Couric, but a more thorough look at, for instance, the lack of support Carter got from the school was in order. It was clear, but the question of why is merely grazed over.

DVD extras also revealed several scenes that I thought fleshed out the characters in a much-needed way. For instance, Carter's son went out of his way to play for his father, leaving a better school to transfer to Richmond. Yes, we see some of the difficulties it brings, but never truly feel the friction. Granted, this is a true story, and maybe it wasn't a big deal. But one of the deleted scenes between father and son at least let you understand it more. Another deleted scene helped explain why Carter pushed his team so hard to achieve more than the standard set by the school. Still another explained at least one question about how a player returned to the team at one point, which is at best brushed passed in the film.

Jackson is ok in the film, but holds par for the course in this one by not doing anything special. Coach Carter may tell the story of an inspiring man looking to do good, but it is just entertaining as a film.

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