The mediocre new "inspirational" sports movie Coach Carter couldn't hit theaters at a more opportune time: It's tapping into not one, but two rich currents in the cultural zeitgeist. In its fevered embrace of increased teacher accountability, high academic standards, and strict punishment, it echoes George W. Bush's desire to leave no child (and/or basketball-playing student athlete) behind. And in the aftermath of one of the most notorious professional-athlete brawls in recent memory, the film plays into the fantasies of sports fans who'd love to see a squadron of unruly street-ballers yield to the iron rule of an authority figure.
Samuel L. Jackson shouts, yells, bellows, and screams his way through the fact-inspired film, playing a gruff small businessman who takes on the thankless task of managing a boys' basketball team at a crime-ravaged high school. The school's beleaguered brain trust expects little of its underachieving students-gone-wild, but Jackson demands his charges perform exceptionally both on the court and in the classroom. With the help of numerous montage sequences, Jackson turns a motley gang of punks, gangstas, ne'er-do-wells, and toughs into a formidable basketball juggernaut. But when his boys underachieve academically, he takes drastic measures to motivate them.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Jackson's performance is that it's almost completely external. As played by Jackson, the title character never experiences the slightest twinge of doubt or insecurity. He's both a rock and an island, a fierce zealot preaching a gospel of discipline and self-improvement. He's also about as warm and cuddly as R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. So when his students sneak out to blow off some steam with some rich white girls following a big game, it's easier to identify with their raging hormones than with Jackson's zero-tolerance approach to team shenanigans. Coach Carter eventually curdles into a grim love letter to discipline and accountability, which makes it the perfect sports film for W.'s second term, but not a whole lot of fun. Or for that matter, any fun whatsoever.