Saturday, May 13, 2006

Glory Road/ *** (PG)

Dan Haskins: Josh Lucas
Bobby Joe Hill: Derek Luke
Adolph Rupp: Jon Voight
Jerry Armstrong: Austin Nichols
Harry Flournoy: Mehcad Brooks
Orsten Artis: Alphonso McAuley
Willie “Scoops” Crager: Damaine Radcliff
Nevil Shed: Al Shearer
Willie Worsley: Sam Jones II

Walt Disney presents a film directed by James Gartner. Written by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. Running time: 106 min. Rated PG (for racial issues including violence and epithets, and momentary language).

Ever since the surprise breakout success of the Jerry Bruckheimer/Disney production of “Remember the Titans” from a few years back, Disney has been in the business of producing true-life inspirational sports tales with strict formulaic structures the likes of “Miracle” and “The Rookie”. All have been generally good movies if never venturing into the territory of greatness. The latest Disney sports moment is another collaboration with Bruckheimer in the form of a basketball picture – they’re going to run out of sports soon. “Glory Road” tells the story of small time college basketball coach Dan Haskins and how he cobbled together the first ever all black starting line up to win the 1966 NCAA Championship.

Josh Lucas (“Stealth”) portrays Haskins, who comes from humble beginnings. Playing with the audience’s perceptions, first time director James Gartner first shows Haskins courtside badgering his players throughout a game. His chides of how they are all “playing like girls” become more comedic when it is revealed that they are girls. A small southern university, Texas Western, takes a chance hiring Haskins, whose only successes have come coaching high school women’s basketball, to turn around their struggling NCAA men’s basketball program.

When Haskins takes the coaching job he is faced with the task of putting together a winning team without the financial resources or the name recognition to do so. “Texas who?” During scouting sessions where the top white athletes laugh at Haskins presence, he notices that each team seems to have one or two black players that play very well, which no one seems to notice. Soon Haskins has taken to the streets, chasing down young black men that think he’s some crazy white man on a black bashing spree.

There are some very funny scenarios here that probably did not hold the same amount of levity in their reality. One involves Haskins chasing one player home where he finds the opportunity to have the fellow’s mother hear him out for the price of partaking in some of her wonderful apple pie. The mother returns later in the film for some more humor when the player finds himself struggling to keep his grade point average up.

The racial civil rights issues of the story are impossible for the filmmakers to avoid since the whole point of such as story is to honor the civil right achievements of Haskins and his team’s accomplishments under the diverse racial tension of the time. However, as in “Remember the Titans”, the filmmakers have managed to keep the Spike Lee scream down to a dull grumble here that consists primarily of older stuffy white folk holding up a stiff chin at the sight of seven black men standing in the same place together. There is a scene of racial violence that even gets some of the Texas Western white teammates ready to rumble with the locals, but like the filmmakers, coach Haskins steps in before anything really nasty breaks out.

The final passages focus on the team’s extraordinary fight through the playoffs to finally face powerhouse champs Kentucky for the championship. Jon Voight (“National Treasure”) plays the crotchety veteran coach of Kentucky Adolph Rupp. The last couple of games presented in the film are typical sports film fare, but done well enough to keep the audience engaged in the games. I think perhaps Rupp’s seeming acceptance that he is going to lose the title to this black team after they have made a couple of key plays to turn the tide is a little too prophetic for a man in his position with his beliefs at the time, but the players never seem aware of the game’s outcome before the end.

While the racial issues in this film are unavoidable and add a resonant significance to the proceedings, there is really no new territory mined here. “Glory Road” is the solid formula Disney has molded into a profitable movie experience from the inspirational sports story. It will please. It will amuse. It will provide a couple of exciting games that people are or are not aware actually happened.

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