Though a successful businessman in his rough California inner-city neighborhood, Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) accepts a request to coach his ailing high school alma mater basketball team. Seeing a group of thugged-out, uneducated boys in front of him, Carter begins to shape young men out of these ruffians through education, lessons on respect, and important basketball fundamentals. The changes are seen immediately, with the basketball team dominating their opponents and enjoying their newfound fame. However, once the squad loses sight of its academic goals, Coach Carter stops the season, which enrages the locals and casts a light on the importance of education over urban hoop dreams.
Complaining of predictability is not permitted when viewing "Coach Carter" (IMDb listing). This is a film ("inspired by" a true story) based solely on known quantities, and it quests to carry out every last cliche imaginable, but you should already know that going in. Predictability isn't an inherently evil thing, but when it's delivered without heart and soul, the result can be cinematically crippling. "Coach Carter" is a film without much soul, but it certainly doesn't lack in the heart department, even if it's sold with lethargic delivery.
It's Samuel L. Jackson's commanding lead performance that takes "Carter" to heights the thuddingly insipid screenplay will not allow for the rest of the production. Jackson is playing below his strengths here, but his charisma and presence is exactly what the film needs to keep its head above water. "Carter" is a film stuffed with vital messages about the improvement of bleak lives, and while the vessels for these messages are poorly arranged by the filmmakers, they do strike an effective and long overdue chord with the urban crowd.
It's tough to fault "Carter" for stressing education and self-esteem, two entirely important themes in the movie, and the film even goes so far as to address the use of the dreaded N-word in everyday hip-hop speak. This is all applause-worthy. Director Thomas Carter (the dreadful "Save the Last Dance") isn't exactly sure what to do with the downtime between the sermonizing, and that's where "Carter" derails in a big way. If you can believe it, the picture runs a whopping 140 minutes, and for no good reason either. Carter layers on considerable screentime for some of the player roles, and to give singer and newcomer actress Ashanti something to do (she plays a pregnant girlfriend), but oddly, considering the film's luxurious running time, he doesn't clear much space for Coach Carter's personal life, or even the majority of the basketball squad. The direction is wildly uneven, hitting an all-time low with an uncalled for sequence that finds the team in an extremely cartoonish Caucasian suburb getting high and having sex with white girls. How this scene fits into the overall story is something maybe Carter could explain to me one day. For now, it's a reprehensible departure in a film supposedly about values and respect.
Yes, there is the "big game" against the dreaded rivals, Carter's important speech to the school board, a violent revolt from the basketball-loving community to Carter's lockouts, educational tough love, the hood-rat gunshot victim, and the power of good grades. "Coach Carter" might be poisonously derivative, but if you can claw your way through some ugly material and shoddy direction, there are some good messages here that can be warmly received.
Filmfodder Grade: C