REMEMBER THE TITANS
No one could have been less enthused than I at the prospect of Remember the Titans, the inspirational high-school-football flick starring Denzel Washington. The film's omnipresent previews - which, I swear, seemed to precede every movie released from June through September - not only appeared to give away all aspects of the film's plot but all aspects of the film's subplots, and it was being released right on the heels of the scabs-play-football bomb The Replacements, arguably the most wretched movie of the past summer.
And yes, the movie is painfully predictable, with a rather graceless script, and it features the most overworked cinematic cliché of the past 10 years: the group sing-a-long, in which the cast "spontaneously" erupts into an off-key rendition of a pop classic. Remember the Titans even features a character whose sole purpose is to burst into song and ruin whatever memories you have of the hits he's performing - the film's soundtrack is like a K-Tel fire sale.
But clunky as the movie is, it's not cynical. It has an earnest spirit - some might say overly earnest - and it's mostly performed with gusto; it started to work on me. And while I wasn't cheering for Our Team to win The Big Game at the end, I found myself moved and cheered that a lot of performers really took this material to heart, and I left with a smile on my face. Despite producer Jerry Bruckheimer's name in the credits, Titans is a live-action Disney movie in the best sense: It's humane and sweet-natured and easy to follow. In a year when Disney's Dinosaur was truly worthless, and pipsqueaky works like Pokemon are dominating kids' imaginations, it would be a real shame if Titans didn't catch on with the youth market; the clichés that we adults might be inured to will probably be fresh to them. It's the best film for kids we've had in some time - a big, emotional, often comical work that transcends its flaws and even works on us grown-ups.
The year is 1971, and racial integration has just hit Alexandria, Virginia. Two local high schools, one black and one white, have merged, and so have their football teams. In an attempt at racial harmony, the school board has assigned Herman Boone (Washington) to replace Bill Yoast (Will Patton) as head coach, and he, his all-white team, and the local townsfolk are none too happy about it. Boone presses on, though, and gradually wins the respect of the now-integrated players, who have to put their differences aside and learn to work as a team. Will they succeed? Does the movie contain a syrupy score that hopes to have you grabbing for the Kleenex?
There's not a plot point in the film that you won't see coming miles away, from the tentative bonding of the black and white team captains to the tentative bonding of Boone and Yoast to the ... well, there's a lot of tentative bonding going on. And the results of the games aren't the least bit surprising because of a piece of crucial information we're given (also seen in the previews): Boone will be fired if his team loses even one game. In the rules of hoary sports flicks, that means either the Titans will go undefeated, or they'll lose one game and the school board will prepare to fire Boone, but, à la Hoosiers, the team will rally in support of him and keep him on, winning the rest of the games. (To be fair, I won't reveal which of these choices occurs.) Remember the Titans is based on a true story, and isn't it amazing how so many true stories sound just like movie conceits?
Yet just when you're ready to give up on the film, which, admittedly, happens a lot in the first hour, something comes along to pique your interest. Most of the time, that's due to the performances of Washington and Patton. I know he was awarded and acclaimed for his work in The Hurricane, but Denzel Washington is so much more varied and enjoyable in this stock role that it's almost funny, partly because Washington is so often funny. He's played tormented, suffering loners so often that his work in Titans feels rejuvenating - his predictable nobility is held in check, and his rants against the high-school players who are busting his chops are a great combination of hysterical and tough; he's the best of Poitier in In the Heat of the Night and Gossett in An Officer and a Gentleman. (He should do comedy more often.) And Will Patton, who usually does his worst work in Bruckheimer-produced films (think Armageddon and Gone in Sixty Seconds) comes through with what might be the best portrayal in his screen career, giving sly wit to his line readings and suggesting the inner turmoil of a pro who desperately wants to do the right thing and has to overcome his natural stubbornness to do so. He and Washington are a sensational pair; we've seen this relationship in countless movies, and they still make it feel fresh.
The director, Boaz Yakin, is to be commended for his work with these two talents, and while his visual style is negligible here, he performs similar feats with the Titans themselves. Very few actually resemble high-schoolers, but they have an infectious energy about them and play their clichés for all they're worth. This is particularly true of Wood Harris and Ryan Hurst as the rival captains who become best friends - their scenes drew the most sobs from the audience I saw the film with - and even that normally overbearing actor Ethan Suplee (think Chris Farley without the laughs) brings surprising understatement to his role. Those foolish, would-be-endearing players in The Replacements were obnoxious stereotypes; the Titans are stereotypes, too, but the actors portraying them give them a healthy, welcome dose of humanity.
And humanity is what Remember the Titans has in spades. With the exception of Yoast's daughter (Hayden Panettiere), who is a little too worldly-wise for my taste, the characters all seem flawed but genial; you find yourself actually liking them, and when was the last time you could say that about movie characters? Our affinity for them makes this cookie-cutter sports flick stand above the norm, despite its numerous problems. Forget Disney's The Kid: This is the year's Disney movie that actually is for the kids - it's entertaining and well-paced and its messages go down easily, like cherry cough syrup - and, if you can keep your cynicism at bay, for a lot of the rest of us, too.