Aiming to atone for such sins as “Gone in Sixty Seconds” and “Coyote Ugly,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer has set up a second division which will, we’re told, be devoted to turning out smaller, more meaningful films. The first fruit of the venture is this inspirational football tale, set in 1971 Virginia, about a black coach who’s brought in to an Alexandria highschool as part of a court-ordered integration program. Will he be able to work alongside the white assistant who was passed over for the job? Can the teammates of two races overcome their prejudices and win?
Well, there wouldn’t be much of a picture if they couldn’t; the demands of the genre, which you might look upon as the big-screen version of an uplifting Sunday night TV movie, pretty much dictate the outcome of the plot. But within the confines of a terribly predictable narrative, director Boaz Yakin (who made the extraordinary “Fresh” back in 1994 and then stumbled with 1998’s “A Price Above Rubies”) does a decent enough job of maintaining interest and building dramatic tension without getting overly mawkish about things. He’s helped by a strong cast, headed by Denzel Washington as Herman Boone, the head coach thrust into a difficult situation. The role doesn’t task Washington’s thespic abilities overmuch, but he invests the guy with considerable warmth and energy. Will Patton is, as usual, rather mannered, but at least he remains nicely subdued as the assistant coach who thinks the head job should have been his but learns to respect Boone. The remainder of the cast roster is filled mostly by younger performers who play members of the squad. Their characters are basically one-dimensional stereotypes–Ryan Hurst as the white jock who comes around, Burgess Jenkins as the one who doesn’t, Ryan Gosling as the pleasant enough guy whose dad’s a virulent racist, Wood Harris as the black kid who demands respect, Donald Faison as the slickly jovial fellow, Ethan Suplee as the goodhearted obese player whose grades are low, Kip Pardue as the surfer-dude Californian who proves his mettle, Earl C. Poitier as the chubby boy who deflates tension with song–but the actors are all sufficiently likable to keep the viewer rooting for them rather than rolling his eyes at the cliches. Unhappily, there’s also an irritating little girl, the white coach’s daughter Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere), whose tomboyish pigskin expertise is supposed to be charming but gets grating fast.
“Remember the Titans” is entirely formulaic and predictable, and the writing is at best of journeyman quality, lacking the subtlety that could make such a piece really distinctive. It also boasts a score by Trevor Rabin that accentuates the heavy-handedness rather than mitigating it. But unless you find the idea of such an earnest, well-meaning mixture of rah-rah sports action, social commentary and maudlin tearjerker off-putting from the start, you’ll find that this example is professionally crafted and perhaps even momentarily stirring, if not particularly memorable.