Nothing blows up in Glory Road, bigger-faster-more producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest, except a balloon of racial earnestness furiously, and unsurprisingly, filled with recycled air.
This modestly entertaining basketball film exists only to draw breath from other, better, financially successful sports movies such as Hoosiers (title-game underdogs staring around a vast arena in reverence), Coach Carter (a player on the outs making physical sacrifices in practice) and Bruckheimer’s own Remember the Titans (any scene dealing with a team’s racial harmony).
Moments when Bruckheimer revisits Titans territory are the best parts of this interesting story, that of the 1966 men’s basketball squad at Texas Western University (now the University of Texas at El Paso). In his first season there, Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) did the unthinkable by recruiting seven Black players into a deep-South program.
Hoping to encourage more than entice, Haskins and his assistants visit these boys who have seen prejudice taint the game they love and whose deflective use of humor against racism only can go so far. These seven young actors, led by Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) and Mehcad Brooks (Desperate Housewives) create charming, individual portraits of skeptics who became successful. (It’s a shame, by the way, that the film’s treatment of Mexican students and workers at TWU shows it only has so much room for racial empathy.)
Haskins led the team on an improbable run to the NCAA championship game, where he made history by penciling in the championship’s first all-black starting five against lily-white powerhouse program Kentucky (whose fans are pictured as Confederate flag-waving yahoos in what some of the Kentucky players say is inaccurate).
Many involved with these events are still living — Haskins, the black TWU players, the Kentucky players (including NBA coach Pat Riley, who served as a consultant on the film). And, seemingly unconvinced of the job the fictional film has done in telling their tale, there they are in the closing credits, with recaps of everything we’ve just seen interspersed with actual Kentucky-TWU footage.
Their talking-head testimonials feel like self-congratulatory DVD supplements that couldn’t wait for DVD. They also plant the near-fatal idea that a documentary on this subject — though less likely to reach as large an audience — would have been a much better project.
A true-life version arguably would have had no purely perfunctory romances, better basketball footage (excepting the final scene, there’s better stuff in video-game credits), less-cartoonish villainy (Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, who reportedly tried to recruit black players before the events of this film, seems to be a boob ignorant of the black man’s game) and a characterization of Haskins informed more by the man himself and less by whatever coach portrayals Lucas has seen.
Haskins was a young guy when he took the job, so the role wouldn’t call for the weathered hard edges of a Samuel L. Jackson or Kurt Russell. Perhaps because freshman screenwriter Chris Cleveland offers no motivation behind Haskins’ desire to coach D-1 ball (or why TWU sought him), the script couldn’t attract the right actor (Ben Affleck originally had the role before backing out). Lucas’ charm and drawl carry him so far, and he never really rises above gnashed-teeth platitudes.
Of course, the film bungles the grizzled veteran coach, too, with Jon Voight’s portrayal of Rupp. With flabby earlobes and a Silly Putty nose, Voight’s makeup is bad to the point of distraction, and Rupp gets extensive face time in sideline huddles mainly because, well, he’s played by Jon Voight.
Glory Road tries to push every button and please everyone involved, and its expressway of good intentions is little more than just a patchy re-paving job.