High school basketball, a tough-but-caring coach, and a bunch of mixed up kids coming of age are all in the game plan for Coach Carter. Sure, there have been plenty of high school basketball movies before, but there's always room on the team for another good player, and this film's got game.
Coach Carter is the true story of a basketball coach, Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), who gained national attention by benching his undefeated team for poor grades. Signing up to be the Richmond Oilers High School basketball coach, Carter's first action as coach is to have the unruly players sign a contract that requires them to perform in the classroom as well as on court. Carter then enforces his tough love approach on the boys, especially on his son Damien (Robert Ri'chard), who transfers from his private school to Richmond against his father's wishes. The discipline and hard work pays off as the team comes together in an undefeated streak which puts the team on track for a run at the state championship. But the success on the court is threatened by the players' poor grades. Carter forces the team to study together instead of practice, and cancels all games until the team's grades are up to snuff. This action leads to media attention and the wrath of the school's principal as well as the parents of the benched players. Of course, Carter's tactics work, and the players succeed in class and on the court.
Samuel L. Jackson plays the title character, and as with every other role he's had, it's hard to imagine it being played by anyone else. Jackson's Carter is hard-hitting and in control but also has a temper. In one scene, the actor goes a bit of over-the-top when Carter finds out that some of his players are failing their classes, but it's not completely out of place. One of the pleasant surprises of the film is the subplot involving talented basketball player Kenyon, portrayed convincingly by Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) and his pregnant girlfriend Kyra, played by singer Ashanti, in her acting debut, who does an excellent job with her character's full range of emotions. Their relationship feels very real and its power is a testament to the young actors. Veteran character actress Denise Dowse (Ray) also turns in a nice performance as Principal Garrison, a woman who has given up on the majority of her students but still wants to do what's best for them. As for the rest of the Richmond basketball team, they keep the film grounded, especially Rick Gonzalez (Old School), as Timo, a tough street kid who realizes the team can save him from of life of drug dealing, and Antwon Tanner, as the wisecracking Worm, who exudes the raw energy and emotion of high school sports.
Emmy-winning director Thomas Carter (no relation to Ken Carter) delivers an admirable addition to the high school basketball genre. As a cross between Hoosiers and Stand and Deliver, Coach Carter doesn't break any new ground, but it also doesn't disappoint. Carter is pure fun to watch, grabbing you from the start and never letting go. Ken Carter's story is an excellent source for a film, and these filmmakers did it right. Mark Schwahn's script has the hope, grittiness and honesty, while Carter seamlessly moves the audience through the fast-paced basketball games, the heartfelt emotional scenes, even throwing in some street violence and a little sex. It could have been far too easy to let the story slip into clichés and schmaltz, but this film is fresh and relevant, conveying a great message to high school sport stars that their studies are just as important as the game.
Coach Carter drives hard to the basket and scores with good performances, lots of pounding basketball and plenty of heart.