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Not Rockne

A worthy actor rides the bench in the listless Coach Carter.


Nobody messes with Samuel L. Jackson -- at least not at the movies. In Shaft, he's 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 ultrahip hit man who spouts instructive Bible verses to quivering punks in Pulp Fiction. Talk about slick. Jackson's scary-smart, oft-quoted Jules had the words "Bad Motherfucker" stitched into his wallet.

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 hard-ass high school basketball coach who lays a storm of tough love on his unruly teen charges. 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. 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.

The other familiar genre incorporated here is, of course, the visionary-teacher-in-the-hood movie. In Stand and Deliver, Edward James 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. There's friction aplenty with the school administration, and assorted parents complain bitterly, 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. 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.

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 Save the Last Dance, and he's not helped by a predictable screenplay by Mark Schwahn (The Perfect Score) and John Gatins (Summer Catch). More damaging, the supporting characters are strictly out of cliché central. They're cardboard cutouts.

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