Title: Coach Carter
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Director: Thomas Carter
Screenwriters: Mark Schwahn, John Gatins
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Rick Gonzalez, Robert Ri’chard
Coach Carter is predictable, schmaltzy, and old as the hills, but so well-made that it is a sort of triumph. The direction, cinematography and editing are so expert that one is tempted to place the movie among The Lord of the Rings, Titanic, etc., as a monumental technical achievement despite the unspeakable difference in budget. The film’s running time, a hulking 136 minutes, seems like it would be an interminable sit, but it might as well have been half the length. That, my friends, is an achievement.
And the thing is, the movie is pretty much exactly what you would expect. The trailer made it evident that I had seen this movie several times before — inspirational figure coaches a group of inner-city underdogs, has run-ins with villainous higher-ups, “I came to teach boys and you became men,” etc., etc. And indeed I have seen it, though not always done this well. The fact is that this is a good story, straightforward and instinctively engaging. One can easily make it obnoxious, which has been done countless times, but it is also fairly easy to do well. There is a reason this sort of tale is so oft-repeated and popular.
This iteration counts among its assets Samuel L. Jackson, who makes the titular basketball coach smart, unsentimental and unexpectedly harsh. Carter is lionized, yes, but not pointlessly or unjustifiably — we believe not only that he is a great man, but that he is a real man, at least within the universe that the movie creates. He is the kind of person who would put up a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., in his office not to make a point but because he actually tries to live by the man’s principles.
There are other great performances, among them unexpectedly powerful work from one Rick Gonzalez (Biker Boyz) as an angry kid who stomps out of the gym at Carter’s arrival only to start running drugs. I was intrigued by the way the movie frames this: he seems to be doing well in his shady business, and is handed a sizable wad of cash just before returning to school and begging the coach to let him back on the team. It’s like a rebuke to those who would claim that inner city kids are perfectly happy being criminals and don’t want anyone’s help, anyway.
But what finally makes this at least a minor gem isn’t the subtext or even the characters, but the sheer proficiency and professionalism of the filmmaking. The director is Thomas Carter (presumably no relation), whose Save the Last Dance I didn’t like, and it’s amazing how many scenes, shots and cuts in Coach Carter are as perfect as they could be. The basketball sequences are fluid and exciting without being drawn-out; the movie looks grainy and rough, but Carter isn’t afraid to hold a shot; every cut is in the right place. The story moves along without hurrying, and we move with it, forgetting that we have watches.
And it is precisely because the movie never steps wrong that the third act carries precisely the emotional uplift you would expect. Like another film being released this week, Coach Carter is an example of what talented people can do with tried and true material.