Nobody messes with Samuel L. Jackson -- at least not at the movies. He's Shaft reinvented, the coolest cop on the street. He's Mace Windu, the only swashbuckler in the Star Wars galaxy who gets to swing a purple lightsaber. Best of all, he's Jules Winnfield, the ultra-hip hit man who spouts instructive Bible verses to quivering punks. Talk about slick. Jackson's scary-smart, oft-quoted Jules had the very words "Bad Motherfucker" stitched onto his wallet as he hijacked Pulp Fiction from Travolta, Keitel, Thurman, Roth and Willis.
True to form, Jackson presents his Don't Screw With Me credentials once again in Coach Carter. This time, though, he does it for the betterment of humankind. No kidding. In this relentless dose of social inspiration, Jackson plays a hardass high school basketball coach who lays such a storm of tough love on his unruly teen charges that half of them want to quit and the other half want to punch him. But in the end they get it. They understand. In the end they dutifully knot their required game-day neckties, plump up their pride and take to the hardwood in the name of self-respect, team spirit and future good deeds. The U.S. Olympic Hockey Team that won gold for coach Kurt Russell has nothing on these guys. Neither do the small-town Texas football players who laid it on the line for Billy Bob Thornton. What we have here is pure, unadulterated uplift -- Samuel L. Jackson as the ironclad saint of Richmond, California, leading a ragtag bunch of kids to redemption.
You've seen all this before, and not just in Miracle and Friday Night Lights. Almost every sports movie ever made, from Knute Rockne, All-American to Hoosiers to Remember the Titans, features an intrepid coach or manager -- part surrogate father, part high priest -- whose unorthodox methods come into question but who makes men of boys and wins the inevitable Big Game. Those dark biopics about Jake LaMotta and Ty Cobb may not have fit the sports-movie mold -- now and then, somebody has to come off as a tragic hero with horrifying weaknesses -- but Jackson's Ken Carter is not that guy. He may be rough, but he's all heart.
The other familiar genre incorporated here is, of course, the visionary-teacher-in-the-hood movie. In Stand and Deliver, Edward Olmos stirred a bunch of wiseass barrio kids to study advanced-placement calculus. In Dangerous Minds, ex-Marine Michelle Pfeiffer earned her "unteachable" brood's undivided attention with some well-aimed karate chops. In Coach Carter, Jackson gets the motivational job done by taking from his indifferent students the very game they love: He shuts down the gym and benches every player on his undefeated, playoff-bound team until all of them get their grades up; he lets them have future shock with both smoking barrels. There's friction aplenty with the school administration, and assorted parents complain bitterly -- "basketball is the only thing these boys have got," one distraught mother says -- but our hero knows exactly what he's doing. After all, he is Samuel L. Jackson.
As is so often the case, the movie is "inspired by a true story." In 1997, the real Ken Carter came to Richmond High School from a business career, and he quickly took aim at the school's failing academics and poor sports programs. Almost single-handedly, he cleaned the place up, but it wasn't until he locked the players out of the gym in 1999 that he became a controversial local celebrity in Northern California. Five years later, he has a small publishing company and his own nonprofit foundation, which is aimed at improving the lot of minority youth. He earns a tidy living as a public speaker and an author of self-help tracts.
Fine, but none of that makes Coach Carter a particularly memorable movie. Not even Jackson's thundering dynamism lifts the drama from mediocrity. Director Thomas Carter (no relation to Ken) relies on the same kind of processed emotion he brought to his interracial romance movie Save the Last Dance, and he's not helped at all by a completely predictable screenplay by Mark Schwahn (The Perfect Score) and John Gatins (Summer Catch). More damaging, the supporting characters are strictly out of cliché central. Among the Richmond High players, Kenyon (Rob Brown) is struggling with the notion of a pregnant girlfriend (Ashanti), Timo (Rick Gonzalez) resists the coach's new rules and seems headed for big trouble, Jason (Channing Tatum) is stuck with the role of token white guy. To a man they are cardboard cutouts, and neither their serious way-mending nor their performance in the championship game does much to distinguish them for us. That's left to Jackson's implacable role model, who combines the familiar qualities of drill sergeant and preacher with a passing knowledge of zone defense. "If they fail," he says of the players, "then we fail."
If a movie fails, not many ticket-buyers are likely to line up and see it.