January 19, 2006

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FILM: Glory Road (PG)

by Amy Diaz

Disney mines the same racial-tolerance-through-sports material that made Remember the Titans such an earnest little nugget for Glory Road, the based-on-reality tale of coach Don Haskins and his barriers-breaking Texas Western basketball team.

With a movie like Glory Road, I think it starts with the music. Mix the appropriate amount of mid-1960s R&B with a soaring soundtrack and you’re already half way to an empowering tale. Then, pick the sport and find a group of handsome twentysomething actors that can pass themselves off as believable athletes. Add in one older actor to play coach who is himself suitably handsome, even when looking pained at the ignorance of school officials. Boom, you have sports movie. Actual dialogue and story more or less irrelevant — by the time you get to the big game, that soaring score is speaking louder than the characters anyway.

For having come out of just such a pre-fabricated big box of movie clichés, Glory Road is surprisingly tolerable.

Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) is, when we meet him, just an over-excited coach of girls’ high school basketball in Fort Worth. He gets a chance to coach college basketball at Texas Western, a college out in El Paso, but the circumstances are just as low-budget. He has very little recruiting budget and his family has to live in the men’s athletic dorm (that bit of babysitting being the real reason they hired him). Faced with few bargaining chips, he has to go after some of the less choosy collegiate possibilities, which, essentially, means African American students. He offers a college education and a promise of something even rarer — despite the convention that keeps most coaches from ever playing more than one or two black players at a time, Haskins promises his players their positions will be more than just token.

As a coach, Haskins is, naturally, unrelentingly strict. He tells his players they must learn “his” basketball — a fundamentals-based, defense-heavy game. They run the shin-splinting, calf-killing suicides; they repeat back-breaking drills. He pushes them to push themselves and then they play their first game. Throwing convention aside, Haskins plays his team for their skills, not their color, and they start to win.

Not one single stop on this Road is surprising: The white and black athletes on the team eventually come together, getting past race with help from tequila in neighboring Cuidad Juarez. The coach faces modest praise and strong disapproval for his unorthodox ways. His resolute wife (Emily Deschanel) is appropriately both proud of her man and fearful for her family’s safety. The players face a grab bag of personal problems, from health concerns to girl trouble to academic difficulties. And then, everybody comes together for the Big Game.

And, in its heart, Glory Road really wants to be a documentary about that game. When Haskins starts an all-black lineup against University of Kentucky’s all-white lineup, we do get a sense of momentousness. As the game starts, the film focuses on the artistry of it — giving us close-ups of action that ESPN would kill for. The movie loves these shots and we get a game that’s so well recreated we almost forget that the outcome is a matter of historical fact. Sure, some popcorniness seeps into those down-to-the-wire scores but the game is so lovingly shot it’s easy to ignore the sillier moments.

Glory Road is not a transcendent movie, not a movie like Friday Night Lights that has something new to offer moviegoers. Yes, we’ve seen most of this before. But, if the woo-hoo moment of underdog team clinching the final game is how you get your jollies, Glory Road will absolutely satisfy.

C+

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