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'Coach Carter's' Got Game

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page WE31

OH, WE'VE never seen this scenario before: In "Coach Carter," a basketball coach (Samuel L. Jackson) is handed the job of pulling together a losing team of trash-talking high school students. He lays down the law. Makes them do suicide routines in the gym ad infinitum and hundreds of pushups if they so much as look at him funny. Forces them to sign a contract promising to keep a high grade-point average, sit in the front row of all their classes, and show up on game day wearing jackets and ties.

Get this: They start winning. Who knew?

The Richmond Oilers have their game faces on in "Coach Carter," starring Rick Gonzalez, from left, Texas Battle, Robert Ri'chard, Antwon Tanner, Samuel L. Jackson and Rob Brown. (Tracy Bennett -- Paramount Pictures)

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But before jumping to a straight-ahead shellacking of screenwriters Mark Schwahn and John Gatins, let's say that, yes, "Coach Carter" covers every cliche in the Hollywood sports movie playbook, but it also makes the routine much more enjoyable than you'd expect. You may find yourself rolling your eyes, but you'll also be paying attention.

The film's based on the true story of Coach Ken Carter, who famously benched his Richmond (California, not Virginia) high school team in 1999 until the players upped their poor GPAs. And yes, he made them sign those contracts. A high percentage of those players did make it to college, so his hard-core discipline had its intended results.

For the movie, director Thomas Carter (who also directed the rather charming 2001 "Save the Last Dance") and his writers do a fine job of pointing out the pros and cons of the pro sports culture in America. Yes, it provides fulfillment for disenfranchised young men who might otherwise get into trouble and, in some cases, offers lucrative professional possibilities. But it can also invite people to turn a blind eye to education. Gifted student-athletes are all too often allowed to live above the law, not make those grades, and live high on the hog. And in the movie, Ken Carter's determination to make athletes and students out of his boys provokes intimidating resistance from parents, school staff and the community. They want a winning team, no matter what.

But the movie's not all didactic. It's also fun, thanks to exuberant actors Antwon Tanner, Channing Tatum, Rob Brown, Rick Gonzalez, Robert Ri'chard and other Richmond Oilers, as they sass, razz, rip and high-five their way through the season. You want testosterone? You like trim six-packs crossing your screen? You like air duels and slam dunks? This movie's for you. Even better is Jackson as the archetypal taskmaster with the heart of gold. He reprises that trademark Jackson routine we've seen him do, in some form or another, from "Pulp Fiction" to "Shaft." He makes sure this is a movie that trades not only in familiarity but rewarding surprise.

COACH CARTER (PG-13, 137 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, drug dealing, teenage drinking and sexual situations. Area theaters.

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