There's not one blessed thing to be found in Coach Carter that you haven't already seen eleven times in other (better) sports / inspirational mentor movies. This one seems cobbled together from the most enjoyable parts of Lean on Me, Hoosiers, and Remember the Titans -- with a generous drop of Dead Poets Society thrown in towards the end.
Nope, there's very little that's fresh, new, or overwhelmingly unique about Coach Carter, but the film does have one outstanding asset that's always worth appreciating.
And that asset is Mr. Samuel L. Jackson.
Watching Sam Jackson step into a role as familiar as this one is, you get the sensation that you're about to watch a brilliant comedian tell a very old joke -- and still bring the house down in the process. It's as if you just needed a simple coat of paint applied to the outside of your house, and you end up sincerely impressed with the painter's craftsmanship. Sure, it's just the boring old paint you knew would be there, but the guy still did an excellent job of putting it up there.
The setting is, of course, a run-down high school just outside of Oakland. Richmond High is coming off of a 4-win season, and the aging coach has lost his passion for the position. So in steps Ken Carter, the no-nonsense proprietor of a sporting goods store -- and former high school basketball great. To say that the new coach's basketballers are taken aback by the change would be a severe understatement: Coach Carter wants orders his athletes to do tons of push-ups, run laps each and every day, maintain a half-decent grade point average, and dress and behave like respectable young men.
Clearly this is a project that's going to take some time.
Based on a true story, Coach Carter unfurls very little that you've not seen elsewhere, but if you're a diehard fan of the Sports Flicks, you could certainly do a heck of a lot worse than to give this entry a spin. When Jackson's character is front and center (which is rather often), the formula and familiarity of Coach Carter doesn't seem quite so overwhelming. Indeed, the movie strays way off-target when it devotes some time to a collection of subplots that feel ported in from "quick & easy clichés 101." One kid's got a pregnant girlfriend; another hangs out with the local gang-bangers ... you know the drill.
When Coach Carter sticks to the hardwood, it's a pretty darn entertaining tale. Off the court, Sam Jackson keeps the somewhat stale dramatic material flowing along quite smoothly. An extended subplot in which the coach locks the gym and cancels a game (much to the chagrin of the local parents) is perhaps given too much attention in the grand scheme of things -- basically because we all know how this story's going to turn out: Win or lose, the coach's new charges will grow to admire and respect Carter's (not-so) unique brand of tough love. Coach Carter might be just another take on an oft-told tale, but Jackson's consistently excellent performance manages to raise this particular game to a higher level.
Video: It's a pretty solid widescreen anamorphic transfer, for the most part, anyway. I was surprised to notice some grainy fuzz among the darker backgrounds, but it's not anything too off-putting.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), DD 2.0 (English), and DD 5.1 French. The sound is crisp and clean, but the levels seem a bit "off." I had the volume set to a perfect pitch, dialogue-wise, but I had to scramble for the remote whenever a rock / rap song hit my speakers.
Extras: There are two featurettes: Coach Carter: The Man Behind the Movie, which is a 19-minute segment on the real-life coach. Sam Jackson, producer Mike Tollin, Ken Carter, and several of his old players sit back and reminisce over all the frustration, inspiration and controversy that arrived with the new coach. Fast Break at Richmond High runs about 11 minutes and covers how cast & crew members approached this project's numerous basketball sequences.
You'll also find a collection of six deleted scenes (accessible individually or as part of a "play all" function), a music video by Twista & Faith Evans entitled "Hope," and a handful of trailers for The Bad News Bears ('05), The Longest Yard ('74), and Laguna Beach: The Complete First Season.
OK, so it's not about to win any points for originality, but Coach Carter does have one thing that other basketball movies do not: Sam Jackson. I mean, hell, didn't they make pretty much the exact same movie a few years back -- with Rhea Perlman as the coach??
Coach Carter earns the Recommended designation, thanks almost entirely to the leading man. Without Jackson on hand, I suspect Coach Carter would be almost too generic to even deal with.