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In 'Carter,' Jackson Calls the Shots

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page C05

Imagine Shaft with a whistle instead of a Smith & Wesson, and you'll get an idea of how Samuel L. Jackson coolly tackles the title role in "Coach Carter," a slick, fun biopic about a former hoops star who transforms a bunch of high school ne'er-do-wells from boys to men.

Morgan Freeman used a Louisville Slugger to scare straight the students in "Lean on Me." Michelle Pfeiffer donned a leather jacket and busted out some goofy kung fu to prove to a class of ruffians that she was down with them in "Dangerous Minds." And Edward James Olmos mixed Jedi mind tricks into his pedagogy in "Stand and Deliver."

Samuel L. Jackson enforces strict rules as high school coach Ken Carter, who benched his undefeated team when some players shirked their academic responsibilities. (Sam Urdank -- Paramount Pictures)

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In the MTV-produced "Coach Carter," which is admittedly just as predictable as those aforementioned feel-gooders about a steely outsider bucking the system for the good of the youth, Jackson needs nothing more than some snazzy suits, angry eyes and that voice (oh, that voice!) to scare some discipline and self-respect into his charges.

The kids are varsity b-ballers in the run-down town of Richmond, Calif., who have an unspoken agreement with their tired teachers: The punks don't care about learning, and the grown-ups don't care about educating them. The team's center can't read; the power forward impregnates his girlfriend, then dumps her; a smooth-shooting guard runs drugs on the side. As for the rest of the school, only half the students will graduate. You know the drill. But thanks mainly to the lead actor, this entry in a rather stale genre deserves to be put at the head of the class.

The film is based on the life of Ken Carter, the owner of a sporting-goods store who in 1998 took on the $1,500-a-season second job of coaching basketball at his alma mater and made national headlines for his unorthodox methods to revive both team and school. Jackson's scenery-devouring performance is the epitome of a star turn, not so much for his acting -- his role is heavy on the thunder, thin on explaining why Carter would return to Richmond for a seemingly thankless task -- as for his awesome, slightly villainous panache. You can't look away from the guy, and director Thomas Carter (who helmed the hit MTV film "Save the Last Dance" and is no relation to the coach) wisely feels the same way, tracking the big, bad man wherever he goes.

Just the way Jackson delivers his wrath -- his cadence, his seething, his slowly increasing volume -- as he stresses the student part of student-athlete and demands that his players sign a contract to obey his laws (must maintain a 2.3 GPA, must wear neckties on game days, must call him "sir") is worth the ticket price. "You will have my respect until you abuse it!" and "I'll ask you one last time to leave my gym or I'LL HELP YOU LEAVE!" aren't terribly clever lines, but Jackson somehow makes them notable quotables.

There's more to "Coach Carter" than just Jackson. The basketball footage is often thrilling, the camera whooshing through the action like a darting point guard as the Oilers -- who spend most of their grueling practices glaring at the coach, doing push-ups and running "suicide" sprints -- blow away their opponents primarily because they're better conditioned than everyone else.

Although most of the kid actors aren't asked to do more than act cocky -- then, in a second-half switcheroo, act humbled -- several performances are quite good. Rob Brown, whom you might remember from the 2000 Sean Connery heartwarmer "Finding Forrester," plays the dad-to-be with a nuanced blend of arrogance and fear, and his scenes with his girlfriend (R&B star Ashanti, fine in her film debut) are sweet. As the drug-pushing three-point specialist, Rick Gonzalez comes out of nowhere for a brutal scene in which his shady side job catches up to him. And Robert Ri'chard adds some much-needed levity as Coach Carter's straight-A son, Damien, who transfers from a cushy private school to the street-tough Richmond just so he can play for his pop.

Of course, the real Ken Carter didn't capture the attention of Bob Costas and ESPN just because he was a strict son of a gun. In the midst of an undefeated season (and after winning just four games the year before), the coach receives academic progress reports on his students. Bad news: Most of the players are either failing all their classes or not bothering to show up at all.

So Coach Carter padlocks the gym door and cancels game after game until the team can collectively get its grades up. Players, teachers and parents are outraged and call for his dismissal. Someone shatters the front window of his sporting-goods store. Someone else spits on his windshield, a powder-keg scene in which Jackson utters an "Aw, hell no" and explodes from his car. (Pity the loogier!) When a school board overturns the lockout, Carter decides to resign, feeling he's the only one who cares about academics.

The movie is way too long at almost 2 1/2 hours (you don't think it ends with him quitting, do you?), and a weepy ending turns into several weepy endings, each one more obvious than the last. But all hail Jackson, a pro's pro, a movie star in the grandest sense, who stays tough as nails throughout. He sheds no tears. He delivers no gushy speeches. He is never anything less than a bad . . . shut your mouth!

Coach Carter (137 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, profanity, teen partying and some drug material.

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