The B-ball drama Coach Carter deserves high marks for its unimpeachable intentions: "Part of growing up is making your own decisions and living with the consequences," the script reminds us. And there are worse things for MTV Films to do with its deep pockets than dramatize the story of Ken Carter (Samuel Jackson), the inner-city basketball coach who locked out his entire undefeated varsity team because the low grades of some of its members made college recruitment unlikely. Come to this movie for the prominent hip-hop soundtrack and glossy sports action; leave with a message about teamwork, decency and self-respect scorched into your brain.
Unfortunately, director Thomas Carter has a beast of a story on his hands - too many build-ups and turning points, too many dead-weight subplots - and he responds with the kind of formulaic narrative shorthand that gives the sports genre a bad name: big speeches, beat-the-clock finales, slow-motion entrances, training montages, scowling authority figures and a huddle of nonspeaking players whose purpose is to respond thoughtfully to Jackson's guidance while glistening with prop sweat. Jackson sells it, of course, but none of the actors has a bit of breathing room. Not pop diva Ashanti in her much-vaunted debut as the pregnant girlfriend of a promising player. Not Rick Gonzalez as the wild-card gangbanger who quits and rejoins the team more often than Jackson removes his eyeglasses dramatically. Not Robert Richard as Carter's son, who feels estranged from his father - a frequent occurrence among sports-movie families - and transfers schools to join his team.
Antwon Tanner does make an impression as the team's requisite goofball. His vitality and presence suggest that he's inhabiting a character more dimensional than the script imagines. And the script is really the heart of the problem. Writers Mark Schwahn and John Gatins have a teen-movie pedigree (lightweight fare like Summer Catch and The Perfect Score), and they've wedged the film's true-life material into a conventional three-act shape instead of reimagining it as cinematic.