Mar 28, 2007 at 12:00 am

Well, they do say it cometh before a fall. Pride, the Afro-aquatic movie heartwarmer, should have taken more pride in itself, seeming to seize every opportunity to flounder and sink under the weight of its own self-importance. Still, a film about an all-black championship swim team from the ghetto ... you gotta admit, it's not a storyline you've seen before.

Based on the real-life triumphs of African-American swimming coach Jim Ellis, who founded the PDR swim team in one of Philadelphia's most dilapidated inner-city neighborhoods in the 1970s (which is still producing Olympic-caliber athletes today), Pride is noteworthy in at least one respect: It signifies the official coronation of Terrence Howard as legitimate box-office attraction. No longer relegated to supporting-role portrayals of pimps (Hustle and Flow) or whores (Crash) to demonstrate his considerable skills, Howard and his Oscar nomination have ascended to the top of the marquee, even with a mediocre movie. Indeed, that he now can make an unremarkable work and glide over it like Teflon is even more significant. He's already signed to make his next nine movies in a row; now that's a green-eyed monster.

The reality, however, is that young swimmers — unless they're in the Olympics or drowning — are not all that riveting to watch, especially on the big screen (even if one of them, Reggie, is played by Diana Ross' son Evan). For the sake of young women and gay men, though, it should be noted that there is considerable eye candy to be enjoyed once the Speedos come out.

Pride's competition is more intense outside the pool; it must be viewed within the subcategory of Annual Great Uplifting Sports Movie. When placed next to recent neo-classics like Remember the Titans, Miracle, Seabiscuit or last year's Cinderella Man, however, its organic plot and production faults become more glaring.

The cast doesn't float well, either. Bernie Mac, as the crusty rec hall custodian with a heart of gold, is the designated funnyman, but even he can't do much to elevate the punch lines on his pages. Tom Arnold, who has fashioned a viable niche career as Angry Dumb White Man, adds little to his formulaic characterization in playing the rival swim coach. The mesmerizing Kimberly Elise, puff Afro and all, fares best next to Howard, and particularly well in her shared scenes with him.

You walk away from Pride singing tunes from its great '70s soundtrack (O'Jays and Curtis Mayfield fans, take note) and with great admiration for the real Ellis, who is celebrated in a photomontage before the closing credits. But his life and exploits might have been served better with a straight-up documentary.

Jim McFarlin writes about movies for Metro Times.. Send comments to [email protected].