It’d be great to say that the heart-stirring sports film Coach Carter is an admirable but stock piece of corn which is ultimately lifted into memorability by an astounding center-court performance by Samuel L. Jackson—but that would be a lie. The film is based on the life of Ken Carter, a basketball coach at a troubled California high school who made waves in 1999 when he benched the entire team—in the middle of a phenomenal winning streak—because of academic underperformance, and wouldn’t let them play again until their grades were up. Now, in an era that worships arrested development multimillionaire athletes like gods, and a culture that expects nothing out of young African-Americans but a steady source of voyeuristic thrills, the tale of a high school coach who thought that his players were students first and athletes a distant second, should resonate. And, for the first hour or so, the film manages to hit all its marks. As Carter, Jackson is appropriately buttoned-up and authoritative, whipping his slacker athletes into shape, both physically and mentally, demanding they respectfully refer to each other as “sir,” wear coat and tie on game day, and actually attend classes. Payoff is immediate, and the newly conditioned team starts cleaning everybody’s clock and feeling pretty full of themselves. There’s the occasional attempt to show that these kids have a life off the court, one of them dealing with his girlfriend’s pregnancy, another trying to avoid a life of crime, but the wisp-thin script can barely sustain any interest once it leaves the basketball court. Even the games themselves are often shot with little skill, which is surprising, given that director Thomas Carter (no relation) cut his teeth on the early ‘80s basketball series The White Shadow. As the film grinds on, without any actual actors to work against, and a role thinner than paint, Jackson starts to look marooned and eventually seems to give up trying. One doesn’t demand much from work of this kind, all you need is some charismatically underachieving kids looking for a father figure, and here comes Coach Carter to lead them, Moses-like, to the promised land of college, the clock ticks down, they make the three-pointer, and everybody goes home happy. But at over two hours long, the windy and self-important Coach Carter can’t even pull off this minimal challenge.
The cinematography is crummy, and in spite of some slightly overblown skin tones, black levels are solid, contrast is top notch, and edge enhancement is a non-issue. In the audio department, dialogue is crisp and clear, as is the sound of the constantly dribbling basketballs.
A hagiographic behind-the-scenes documentary that focuses on the real-life Ken Carter, a featurette about the recruitment of the film's star basketball players, six deleted scenes, the "Hope" music video by Twista and Faith Evans, and previews for The Bad News Bears, the original The Longest Yard, the complete first season of Laguna Beach, and Sahara.
Unlike its many star basketball players, the film is both underachieving and self-hagiographic.