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Glory Road

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/13/06 00:45:16

"Familiar, but fun."
3 stars (Just Average)

There is absolutely nothing in “Glory Road” you haven’t seen before, especially in the inspirational sports movie boom of the past few years. Aside from the character names and the sport itself, these are all the same movie. Scrappy team from a nobody school rising to the championships? Check. Mismatched players learning to work together and triumph as a team? Check. Player dropped from the team, only to be granted a return after showing just how much spirit he truly has? Check. Sidestep for a moment of comic relief, usually with a teammate’s momma raising a fuss? Check. Radio announcer conveniently supplying a running narration of every game? Check. Newspaper headline montages filling in the gaps and providing an easy forward for the story? Check. Soundtrack filled with classic tunes of the era? Check.

I must be a sucker for sports movies. Must be. There’s no other reason why I could have enjoyed “Glory Road.” There’s not a single moment of originality to be found here, not a solitary second where the story strays from the formula. It’s all too predictable, not just in the Big Game, but in the little moments; this is a movie with no surprises. Why, then, did I have such a good time with the story and the characters? Why did I get so involved? Looks like I’m a sucker.

It’s the true story (aren’t they all?) of the 1965-66 basketball team from Texas Western, which, history (and the movie’s trailer) informs us was the first team to play with five black starters in an NCAA championship game. NBA coach and University of Kentucky player Pat Riley describes the game (during a series of closing credits interviews with the real-life counterparts of those we just watched) as “the Emancipation Proclamation of basketball.” A title card tells us that the game is considered the most important in college sports history. I guess it’s no surprise, then, to learn that the ragtag team coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) puts together in the opening act turns out to do just fine throughout the season.

The screenplay, from first-timer Chris Cleveland, borrows liberally from “Hoosiers” (what basketball film doesn’t?) and “Miracle” (with its faithful recreation of a famous game taking up almost the entire third act), but it’s “Remember the Titans” that lays the most foundation here. The film was Disney’s first in an ever-growing line of family-friendly true-story sports hits, and it remains the go-to formula for the studio: new coach at school must overcome the pressures of the community when he opts for a racially mixed team in an era and locale that frowns on such things. Yes, it’s a dopey cliché to watch the racist booster learn the error of his bigoted ways, and it’s naïve of the film to suggest that basketball heals all wounds, and it’s dishonest of the script to place so much emphasis on this single team (especially when it goes out of its way to ignore any black player on any other team). But it’s also a compelling story, so much so that the movie’s flaws grow more and more unnoticed, until you’re not bothered at all with any of them until long after the final credits have rolled.

This is because it’s easy to like these guys. They’re all good, friendly folks, led to victory by a no-nonsense, aw-shucks coach. The film may paint in simple strokes, but why not? It’s not a complex plot, after all. Wouldn’t we rather enjoy just getting wound up in the excitement and concerns of the team and its fiery coach?

And while the screenplay overdoses on formula, it surprisingly restrains itself from melodrama. I think back to “Coach Carter.” In that film, the games themselves were thrilling, but they became overshadowed by all those ridiculous plot developments and overblown acting and writing that left the film bordering on laughable. In “Glory Road,” meanwhile, Cleveland’s script remains focused on a single path. The story’s given just enough room to breathe (one player gets a girlfriend, another has trouble in class), but not so much that it runs off course. We follow one line: the team’s road to victory on the court, punctuated by its troubles with racism off it.

The simplicity allows director James Gartner (also making his feature debut) to concentrate on making the game sequences themselves sizzle - and they truly do. (Mercifully, we’re spared the cheap slo-mo final shot, and we’re left with nothing but fast-paced sports action goodness.) His non-sports footage is not nearly as eye-catching, although anything too visible would distract.

Perhaps I’m being too easy on “Glory Road.” After all, anything bad you hear about the film is most likely all too true - clichéd, simplistic, cornball. But here we have an example of when all of those things actually add up to a good little film. Like “Titans,” “The Rookie,” or “Miracle,” “Glory Road” uses these things in its favor. It tricks you into getting involved, into cheering for the heroes in the last seconds of the final game. It gives you everything you want in a sports movie, especially that most important thing of all: it’s a good time.

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