When it comes to making movies that involve the viewer, it's usually a safe bet to go with a sports-related story. That's because all of the fundamentals of dramatic (and sometimes comedic) storytelling are inherently present in such pictures.
There's the protagonist (by him or herself and often leading a team of directly related co-protagonists) who's trying to achieve some sort of goal - whether it's athletically based such as scoring the winning touchdown, striking out the last pitcher or sinking the last hoop, or mentally based, such as overcoming an injury, old age or simply proving oneself.
Then there's the antagonist (also often plural in form) who wishes to stop the protagonist from achieving whatever that goal might be, as well as either a clock that's ticking down or some other conclusive device (the 18th hole in golf or the 15th round in boxing, etc.) that puts additional pressure on the protagonist. It's a classic confrontational scenario that's often just as effective as James Bond trying to stop a villain before some bomb detonates.
Unfortunately, and as is the case with 007, however, the sheer repetition and/or redundancy of watching such characters do just that time and time again has taken a bit of the edge off such proceedings. Just as we know Bond will be victorious, such athletic endeavors usually have the same results (lest they irritate the viewer for investing their time and encouragement of success only to have it dashed by an unconventional Hollywood ending such as the running back being stopped short of the goal line or the batter striking out).
While that often happens in real life, it doesn't usually sit very well with viewers, and most studios and filmmakers fear negative word of mouth crushing their latest endeavor's attempt at box office success. Thus, what's a cinematic storyteller supposed to do? Go the conventional route and have the protagonist succeed only to bore the audience since that's what they knew was going to happen, or risk irritating/alienating them by having the effort fail?
Well, if you're writer Gregory Allen Howard (who's written for various TV shows) and director Boaz Yakin ("A Price Above Rubies," "Fresh"), you tap into a real-life story from the past where you can more easily get away with either scenario, since audiences are more likely to accept what happens as the unavoidable, already transpired past. That's what the two have done with "Remember the Titans," an engaging and entertaining football yarn based on the real-life exploits of the early 1970s era T.C. Williams Titans of Alexandria, Virginia.
As in most good sports flicks, this one deals with far more than just the sport in question or even the conclusive outcome of the last big game. With the racial tension of the era being stoked by that school's forced integration - not only of its classrooms but playing fields as well - the story has a plethora of built-in dramatic conflict and tension that fuels the plot and its characters' actions.
Of course, that's not to say that the film is a probing look at that particular matter or racism in general, and some may complain that it's an overly simplistic examination of the issue that uses football as the "feel good" metaphor for how everyone can get along (regardless of whether that's what really happened). While there is some validity to that point -- after all, this is a PG-rated film and its handling of the topic is thus an understandably sanitized view of it - most audience members probably aren't expecting a dissertation about race relations. Instead, they want to see an entertaining picture and this film delivers that and more.
Although the picture retreads a great deal of previously seen and visited material, and may occasionally (or often) feel a bit cloying, manipulative and/or over sentimentalized to some (through composer Trevor Rabin's otherwise enjoyable score and/or the individual moments that are seemingly plugged in just for that effect), most less critical viewers will probably eat this up and for good reason.
For starters, it plays off the basic good vs. evil and right vs. wrong plot. While again, there isn't a great deal of depth or examination of such matters, and little if anything that occurs will come as much of a surprise, what's present simply works. Just enough tension is introduced to create a certain level of unease among viewers who will then accordingly root for it to be alleviated, and thus buy into whatever means are necessary - such as the coach's Marine type football boot camp - to do just that.
Notwithstanding some evidence and inklings of producer Jerry Bruckheimer's fingers stirring up the audience pleasing moments (as he's done over the years in more high octane-driven films such as "Top Gun," "The Rock" and scores of other pictures), what makes the film work so well is its ability to get the viewer to like and thus care about its characters.
While there are the obligatory, stereotypical bad eggs, most of the characters come off as flesh and blood individuals, rather than the caricatures and cardboard cutouts found in films such as "The Replacements." Given smart, credible and occasionally moving dialogue to speak, the performers inhabiting the characters do a good job in making them seem real.
The headliner, of course, is Denzel Washington ("The Bone Collector," "Glory"), who's probably safe in hoping that this adaptation of a true story won't be dogged with accusations of inaccuracies, as was the case with his last film, "The Hurricane." Playing the part as something of a mixture of a Marine drill sergeant (minus the salty language) and standard high school football coach, Washington gives the character all of the right nuances to make him credible and likable. The same holds true for Will Patton ("Gone in 60 Seconds," "Entrapment") who believably plays a coach who can't believe his misfortune of being replaced, but still loves coaching enough to stay with the team as an assistant.
The film also does a good job in portraying the individual players. While some (or a lot) of artistic license is understood in a film like this and obviously not all of the players are fleshed out, I'm happy to report that the filmmakers avoided the clichéd ragtag group of players (covering every ethnic, cultural and other labels) who come together despite their diversity. Although the players here do just that as far as race is concerned, it fortunately doesn't feel contrived or artificially constructed and executed.
Some of the best performances come from Ryan Hurst ("Saving Private Ryan," "The Postman") and Wood Harris ("Above the Rim," "As Good As It Gets") as the respective white and black team leaders who try to become friends and hold the team together, while the likes of Ethan Suplee ("Road Trip," "American History X") and Donald Faison ("Waiting To Exhale," "Clueless") are present for some comic relief, although their characters are also otherwise credibly portrayed. Other standouts include Kip Pardue ("But I'm A Cheerleader") as a laid-back California quarterback and Hayden Panettiere ("Isn't She Great," "Message In A Bottle") who steals every scene she's in as a precocious, 9-year-old football fanatic/expert.
With a good mixture of drama, comedy and well-choreographed and credible high school gridiron action, the film might not present anything new or particularly deep about its underlying, true-life story, but it's near constantly engaging and almost always entertaining. While it might not appeal to all moviegoers, most viewers will probably enjoy the film, its uplifting story and its humanized characters. As such, "Remember the Titans" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.