As golden rules of genre cinema go, one stands out above all the rest: sports films must focus on an underdog. Whether a ragtag bunch of losers have to band together to overcome an undefeated rival, a ridiculed everyman is determined to prevail against all odds, or a formerly-scorned player must rise from the ashes to prove something to himself and his peers, sports films rely on the little guys to drive their stories and leave their mark. Of course, just because a filmmaker tosses a group of underdogs and a ball into a screenplay doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll end up with a good movie.
’Coach Carter’ recounts the true story of Kenneth Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), a retail salesman hired by his inner-city alma mater to coach high school basketball and whip a team of rude-n-rowdy hoodlums into shape. Instead of focusing on the fundamentals of the sport, Carter makes each player sign a contact, agree to maintain their grades, regularly attend their classes, and show up on game day wearing a shirt and tie. While the boys don’t immediately warm to the coach’s demands, they soon begin to understand and respect the method to his madness. However, after a winning streak leaves the members of his team with inflated egos, Carter must resort to a series of controversial and unorthodox lessons to teach the boys how to live like men.
Your reaction to ‘Coach Carter’ will depend heavily on how willing you are to overlook the clichés of its genre, the stodgy performances of some of its young actors, and the various subplots that grasp for any heart string worth plucking. Personally, aside from some fairly unique developments in the course of the main story, I was overwhelmed with the familiarity of the film. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before. Jackson is a gruff but likeable coach who understands winning is determined by more than the outcome of a ballgame. His players are a menacing but ultimately harmless bunch who have to leave their pride behind to accomplish anything worth accomplishing. Their parents whirl into angry action when more is expected of their boys than putting a ball through a hoop. The school board is distressed to learn one of their teachers is purposefully unsettling the inner-city status quo. I could go on and on, but I’m assuming you get the point.
’Coach Carter’ isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it also doesn’t stand out from similar films with more interesting characters and intense interpersonal conflicts (‘Remember the Titans,’ ‘Friday Night Lights,’ and ‘Hoosiers’ immediately pop to mind). Aside from Jackson’s portrayal of Carter himself, there aren’t any standout performances to rave about. Many of the boys border on caricature, their parents come across as daft simpletons, and the other teachers and administrative officials manage to register as thin cardboard stand-ins, particularly every time they’re forced to share the screen with a high-caliber force like Jackson. Considering the sheer volume of melodrama that dominates the majority of the story, the film falls surprisingly flat and fails to deliver a proper emotional climax.
I’m sure some basketball fans will really get into ‘Coach Carter,’ feel genuine empathy for the characters, and be completely satisfied with the film exactly as it is. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people. Samuel L. Jackson junkies may get a kick out of the actor’s tough-love schtick, but I just wanted to pop in another disc and spend time watching a flick that I didn't feel I had already seen a thousand times before.
’Coach Carter’ arrives in high definition with a crisp 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that looks pretty good, especially considering the fact that the film makes use of a bland and oppressive palette. As it stands, colors are strong and stable, primaries are muted but bold, and black levels are nice and deep (albeit slightly crushed at times). Compared to its DVD counterpart, the most improved aspect of this release is its increased clarity and sharpness -- textures are more properly defined, foreground edges are more distinguished, and delineation is more revealing. There are a handful of soft shots, but they appear to be the product of the original photography, rather than a technical deficiency in the transfer. Even so, I’m pleased to report the image doesn’t suffer from any significant artifacting, distracting source noise, or print damage.
Unfortunately, there are a pair of issues that hold ‘Coach Carter’ back from its potential. It looks as if Paramount chose to apply noise reduction to the transfer, reducing grain but robbing the picture of its finest detailing. Skin looks a bit waxy at times, hair is occasionally hazy, and facial features, stubble, and pores aren’t as distinct as I expected. Also, while it’s not nearly as pervasive, I did catch strands of lingering edge enhancement mingling with the cinematography. Granted, I’ve seen far more meddlesome DNR and EE on other releases, but it still seems entirely unnecessary. Ah well, less discerning fans of the film should be generally pleased with the results.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track featured on ‘Coach Carter’ may not boast the convincing immersive properties of other notable genre releases, but it does handle everything thrown its way with ease. While dialogue is largely limited to the center channel, voices sound natural and realistic, effects have legitimate presence, and mid-game shouts are well prioritized amidst the rest of the mix. Likewise, the LFE channel leaves too much weight to the imagination, but still provides reliable support when needed. Since the film is more a chatty drama than a rousing sports epic, the rear speakers are subdued and are mainly used to pepper scenes with light ambience and enhance the acoustics of interior spaces and gymnasiums. At least the track’s pans are smooth, its directionality is decent, and its soundscape is clear.
I have to admit I thought the film’s basketball sequences would offer more aggressive sonics and was disappointed to find the original sound design came up ever-so-short in nearly every regard. Still, it’s tough to criticize a lossless track too much when the source is responsible for its shortcomings. All in all, audiophiles will sneer at the results, but casual listeners won’t muster up any serious complaints.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Coach Carter’ includes all of the supplemental material that appeared on the film’s previously-released DVD, and even tacks on a trio of exclusive features for good measure. Unfortunately, it doesn’t amount to very much and most of the video content is presented in standard definition. A filmmakers’ commentary would have gone a long way on this one.
’Coach Carter’ didn’t resonate with me, but Samuel L. Jackson’s performance, a few unexpected developments in the story, and a decent script prevent this one from sinking as low as it could have. The Blu-ray edition features a fairly impressive video transfer, a faithful TrueHD audio track, and a small smattering of supplements that include a pair of exclusive featurettes. Anyone who already owns the DVD will be pleased with the upgrade, but everyone else will simply shrug their shoulders at this less-than-memorable release.