You've seen this movie before: A fiery, inspiring basketball coach convinces a headstrong team of underdogs to overcome their differences and win a championship. Wasn't it Gene Hackman as a hoops coach in Hoosiers? Or was it about football, with Denzel Washington (Remember the Titans)? Or maybe it was about hockey, with Kurt Russell (Miracle)?
Glory Road is just the latest derivative, heart-tugging sports drama from super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the former action mogul who started branching out five years ago with the sappy Titans. Now, he's decided to transplant most of the ideas from that film to a new sport and setting, and cash in all over again. Also "based on a true story," Glory Road recounts one team's rocky rise to stardom at Texas Western University in the mid-1960s.
Hired to bring the school's basketball program up to snuff or at least out of the gutter the strapping young Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) moves his family to the arid, desolate border town of El Paso, where they struggle with the cuisine, and the fact that nearly everyone speaks Spanish. As if one culture clash wasn't enough, Don decides to recruit talented African-American players from the far-reaches of Detroit, New York City and Gary, Ind. Brimming with raw talent, the team members must first come to terms with each other before they can effectively play the game. When they go on the road, they encounter an opponent far greater than all of them: racism. (Cue the mournful strings on the sound track.)
Being derivative isn't the worst crime in the world, and Glory Road is in many ways a well-made film. Though directed by former Detroiter James Gartner, the movie has that rich, burnished glow that all Bruckheimer films have, as if someone airbrushed every frame. The period detail is lavish, like a super-expensive episode of American Dreams. Best of all, the supporting cast is made up of talented young actors (particularly the reliable Derek Luke and the utterly natural Mehcad Brooks), and Jon Voight turns in an irresistible cameo as Kentucky b-ball legend Adolph Rupp.
But there's a big, gaping void at the center of Glory Road, and his name is Josh Lucas. Where other recent sports films have boasted stellar, complex coaches Billy Bob Thornton in Friday Night Lights and Russell in Miracle come to mind Lucas has precisely two emotions: laid-back and foaming at the mouth. He's not good enough to overcome the script's hardass coach clichés, and he's given so little to do with his wife (the otherwise talented Emily Deschanel), it's hard to get a sense of who Don is off the court.
It doesn't help that the movie's light, comedic scenes are smashed up against serious, emotional ones. Bruckheimer may be taking a sabbatical from his big, dumb action pictures, but every one of his productions, no matter how small, still has the same slam-bang editing style. From the moment the guys step out onto the hardwood, Trevor Rabin's throbbing, intrusive score starts to thunder, and we're not allowed to watch the games without a million jarring cuts to distract us. The Motown and gospel-influenced sound track, no matter how rousing, isn't even accurate: Many of the Stevie Wonder and Temptations tracks that crowd the speakers hadn't even been released by the time the guys won the championships in 1966. Bruckheimer may be a brilliant marketer the feel-good tale was released just in time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day but a little less of his pandering would've done wonders for Glory Road.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].