Sports movies have an in-built trajectory that you tinker with at your peril. Be it baseball, golf, hockey or football, no film in this well-worn genre is complete without a healthy dose of inspirational uplift, changing room hi-jinks and a few dispiriting reversals endured en route to climactic, fist-punching triumph. Coach Carter ticks all these boxes and then some, its fact-based tale of high-school basketball players shown a better future by their demanding mentor merrily going where Remember The Titans, The Mighty Ducks and a gazillion others have gone before.
Two factors single this MTV-produced offering out from the pack. First there's Samuel L Jackson, an actor good enough to make the most shopworn material feel fresh and compelling. More importantly, though, here is a movie, made in George Bush's America, that actually celebrates academic achievement. Winning basketball games is all well and good, it says, but what use is it if you can't actually spell `basketball'? Coming at a time where dumbing down is de rigueur, such a notion is not just commendable, it's downright revolutionary.
Of course, everything has its limits. It's great for Jackson's glowering hard-ass to force his squad to up their grades, just as long as he does so in time for his team to make the State Championships. "Get outta here, Coach - we gotta learn shit" grins one character during the obligatory Dead Poets Society "Captain, My Captain" scene, while another's educational progression is crudely telescoped when, out of nowhere, he recites a speech by Martin Luther King. And there's only so many belligerent showdowns Sam can have with his laughably uncooperative principal (Denise Dowse) before ennui sets in.
Still, any movie that dares to put reading and writing on the same plateau as shooting hoops deserves to be marked up. And just in case all that learning shit starts to pall, director Thomas Carter (no relation) ensures there are plenty of hyperkinetic, flashily edited basketball games to keep the interest up. We give it a C+, with a gold star for effort.
"The losing stops here!" Samuel L Jackson's imposing performance elevates a high-school sports yarn with more on its mind than trophies.