Samuel L. Jackson's screen persona is best described by the inscription on his wallet in Pulp Fiction, an obscene, streetwise compliment that can't be printed here but suits him to a T. Even when he's playing a straight arrow in tepid, feel-good circumstances such as Coach Carter, Jackson truly is a bad you-know-what.
If not for Jackson's fiery presence that scares viewers into admiring him, Coach Carter would be TV movie of the week material. Make that a miniseries. This is a basketball flick that goes into quadruple overtime, at least 30 minutes past its dramatic stamina. We don't mind when Jackson takes center stage, playing a true-life coach named Ken Carter whose handling of players in an educationally depressed high school was a passing media fancy.
Jackson is convincing on the sidelines, and inspiring at practice as he whips a bunch of delinquents with nice jump shots into an honest-to-goodness team. The accent is on goodness, since the players must sign a personal contract promising a higher GPA than eligibility requires, front-row seats in all classes and never missing one. Oh yes, and wearing coats and ties on game days.
It's a perfect scenario for Jackson to ply his sense of back-alley wisdom and wicked remarks at exactly the right moments. He commands the screen despite the predictable drama swirling around him. Coach Carter can't be faulted for its desire to inspire, but the execution is strictly by the playbook for films climaxing in "The Big Game."
Of course, the players require face time and, although they're attractive faces, the words coming out of their mouths are dull and predictable. There's a hothead (Rick Gonzalez) wavering between basketball and dealing drugs, a budding star (Rob Brown) whose pregnant girlfriend (Ashanti) gets in the way of a college scholarship, and a self-doubting stud (Channing Tatum) around for bare torso shots in the locker room. This is, after all, an MTV Films production.
A little more interesting is Carter's son (Robert Ri'chard), who leaves a prim private school to join his father at lowly Richmond High. The coach's refusal to take it easy on him _ pushups and "suicides" running drills should get co-star billings _ and the boy's respectfully stubborn response are a nice touch. All other subplots, including a principal (Denise Dowse) shifting her position on Carter with each scene, are showstoppers in the wrong sense of the term.
The story's key twist _ Carter suspending the season until his standards are met _ arrives late and still gets its due. The question of what is more important, sports or studies, is handled with dignity and, I suspect anyone would agree, the proper perspective. There's even a hint of Hoosiers in the drawn-out finale, the kind of sports sentimentality many viewers will cherish. But if not for Jackson, a lot of them wouldn't stick around for it.
Director: Thomas Carter
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Debbi Morgan, Rick Gonzalez, Rob Brown, Ashanti, Robert Ri'chard, Channing Tatum, Denise Dowse, Antwon Tanner
Screenplay: Mark Schwahn, John Gatins
Rating: PG-13; profanity, violence, drug references, sensuality, alcohol abuse
Running time: 130 min.