Judge David Johnson played ball for his church league and went scoreless his first season. Where was Coach Carter when he needed him?
Our review of Coach Carter (Blu-Ray), published January 9th, 2009, is also available.
It begins in the streets. It ends here.
The omnipresent Samuel L. Jackson (Shaft) headlines this urban sports tale about a real man named Ken Carter who made it his mission to turn the lives of a group of potentially prison-bound basketball players around and—gasp!—get them into college. Decent morals ensue.
Facts of the Case
The Richmond High School basketball team is a joke. Winning only four games last season, they have become a blight on an already unsavory school. Ken Carter (Jackson) accepts the job as head coach for a meager stipend and a guarantee of aggravation and long hours. But he enlists because he believes he can help spring these boys from the cycle of despair the statistics declare them to be bound for. Carter is a Richmond alum himself, boasting school records that have stayed for over twenty years.
None of this impresses the squad, who immediately give Carter attitude. He throws it back in their face, in the show of force necessary to all these punk high school kids movies, and then stuns them by making each player sign a contract if they wish to continue on the team. The contracts demand academic standards that are beyond the state's extracurricular GPA mandate as well as a slew of other agreements: Players must commit to doing community service, dress in a shirt and tie during game days, attend all classes, and sit in the front row.
The players are hostile at first, but they eventually relent. And then the coaching begins. Carter puts his team through punishing conditioning (as all teams endure in every sports movie) and reorganizes the way they look at team basketball. Carter's son Damien (Robert Ri'chard) is so motivated to play for his father that he withdraws from a top prep school to attend Richmond. Thanks to Carter's skills, the team starts to rack up wins and soon finds itself in the implausible position of being one of the strongest high school teams in the state. But just as they prepare to rocket ahead in the rankings, Coach Carter is shocked to discover his boys have failed to live up to their contracts; the majority of them have been absent from class and are failing. In an unprecedented move, he locks the gymnasium and forces the team to forfeit practices and games until the contract terms are met, much to the consternation of the community.
Coach Carter is a great example of the unreliability of first impressions. From the trailers and promo stuff, I built up zero interest in seeing this movie. An MTV film? And a sports movie to boot? The last MTV sports flick I saw was Varsity Blues, and while I'll admit it remains a guilty pleasure, it's an admittedly dumb movie. But Coach Carter surprised me.
It's an inspirational film based on a true story that espouses a great message—a message that runs counter to so many urban films (sports films especially) that I've seen. It's a Hollywood movie that doesn't feel like a Hollywood movie. Coach Carter is the anti-punk flick. Our protagonist instills qualities in his players that would be sneered at on the playground: respect for your opponents, a curb on trash talking, commitment to academics first and foremost, personal responsibility, placing self beneath others.
Comparing Coach Carterto Varsity Blues, which trumpeted self-indulgence, consequence-free decision making, and the rest of that mainstream claptrap, reveals what sets it apart from the usual fare. Our kids here are just as flawed and goofy as you'd expect, but their arcs lead them to the understanding that there is a better life for them beyond basketball. Carter encapsulates this when, upon hearing that basketball is the only thing these kids have, he responds with "That's the problem!" At every turn, Carter challenges the boys' conceptions of what it means to be a winner, and introduces the foreign concept of respect to them. He makes almost every scenario into a life lesson for the kids.
Unfortunately, I found this approach by the filmmakers bittersweet. While I don't think the film is too preachy—the messages Carter delivers are refreshing—I do feel that these object lessons detract from the pacing of the film. It seemed to break down like this: The boys would do something stupid, and Coach Carter would immediately follow up with a message. They would be playing a game and one of the kids would start trash talking, and the following practice Coach would deliver a lecture on humility and class. Or the boys would sneak out to go to a party, and the next day Coach would speak on the need to carry oneself as a champion and be an able representative of the school. After a while, these set pieces would add up, and soon you're looking at a bloated run time, which I found to be Coach Carter's main trip-up. The movie runs at two hours and sixteen minutes, and while it's not really a trek, the method of cramming as many lessons as possible into the film became transparent, and ultimately diluted the movie's overall effectiveness.
Adding to the crowded feel of the movie were the various side stories, featuring a young couple dealing with a pregnancy, a player caught up in the world of street crime with his cousin, and the relationship between Coach Carter and his son. These threads were all decent but suffered from too little meat. As the stories jockeyed for screen time, they took away from each other, the result being watered-down quantity over quality. Out of the three stories, I found the father-son tangent most interesting. Damien Carter is a good kid, supportive of his father, and that relationship became an example for the other boys on the team (unfortunately this wasn't explicit in the movie, but discussed in an interview with one of the original teammates in the bonus features).
I've spent enough time griping. And truthfully, the only complaint I have is that there are too many forced bits in this film, which, while they're not bad, detract from the more potent elements of the story, mainly the lockout itself and the players' responses. Let my last word on the quality of the move be this: It exceeded my expectations, was profoundly moving in some parts, and is heartily recommended.
Everything works on the technical front. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen is very clean, and the colors are bold. The basketball sequences are the most vivid, with the action sharp and crisp. The digital mix (Dolby Digital 5.1) is aggressive and sports an active LFE for the hip-hop soundtrack.
Bonus materials are modest, the highlights being two featurettes. "Coach Carter: The Man Behind the Movie" is a nice supplement, featuring interviews with the real Ken Carter, his son, and a few of the Richmond players, though Samuel L. Jackson bums everyone out with the news that recently Richmond taxpayers voted to not fund athletic programs for the high school. "Fast Break at Richmond High" follows the casting process for getting real ball players onto the big screen (similar to what the filmmakers did with Miracle). Six uninteresting deleted scenes and a music video by Twista and Faith Evans fill out the rest of the bench. Conspicuously absent: a feature commentary, ideally with Ken Carter himself and maybe a player or two.
I really like Coach Carter, yet I feel a tighter run time and the excision of some sequences would have augmented the message of the film, not diminished it. This MTV film is, ironically, the anti-MTV film.
No foul. The accused can take the court.
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