When Californian school coach Ken Carter refused to let his undefeated basketball team compete until they bettered their grades, he made headlines across America. Now his principled stand gets the Hollywood treatment in Coach Carter, a slick high-school sports story that balances the usual clichés with an unusually sophisticated, pro-education message. Think Dead Poets Society with a basketball hoop and you'll know the score in Thomas Carter's predictable but enjoyable melodrama, which gifts Samuel L Jackson an eye-catching leading role.
Jackson has taken this kind of mentor part before, most notably in 1997's teacher-goes-postal thriller 187. Here, though, he's in more fatherly mode, his stern taskmaster hiding a sentimental streak as broad as the basketball court on which he holds sway over his unruly squad of rebels. Carter brings the boys in line by calling them "Sir", punishing every offence and making them sign contracts that promise they will pull their collective fingers out in class.
"AN UNCOMMONLY SAVVY MESSAGE"
His tough-but-fair tactics immediately reap dividends in the gym as the Richmond High Oilers sweep the State Championships. But when his pupils fail to keep up their end of the bargain, our hero is forced to take drastic measures. His actions soon set him on a collision course with his charges' parents, the local community and the school board, who place more importance on sporting success than preparing its students for college.
Over long and deeply manipulative, Coach Carter should nonetheless be praised for its far-from-fashionable celebration of personal advancement through academic achievement. Its uncommonly savvy message excuses a multitude of sins - not least Jackson's grandiose speechifying and a coarse depiction of inner-city life that suggests every teenager is either an unmarried mother or a drug-dealing gangster in the making.