Denzel Washington should have held out for a better script before he signed on to star in Remember the Titans, but you can see why he wanted to do the movie: He gets to play Martin Luther King Jr. and Vince Lombardi rolled into one nostalgically omnipotent tough love saint. The picture, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and based on a true story, is set in 1971, just after the Alexandria, Va., school board has been forced to integrate a local black school with a local white one.
The role of Herman Boone, a football coach assigned to head up the new, racially mixed squad at T.C. Williams High School, allows Washington to be a morally righteous crusader and, at the same time, to have fun with the role of an equal opportunity drill sergeant who treats each team member, regardless of race, with a blend of relentlessness and respect. Boone, like all great coaches, may be a bit of an SOB, but he’s an SOB who cares.
Boone’s appointment displaces Bill Yoast (Will Patton), a white coach with Hall of Fame credentials who is suddenly working under him. Washington has to deliver a few too many lines like ”You’re overcookin’ my grits, coach!” but his interplay with Patton, a saucy actor whose ”ain’t I charming” defensive smirk lends him a disquieting resemblance to George W. Bush, is the best thing in the movie. Boone carts the black and white players off to a special training camp, and as their wills get smelted and remolded by his hammering three a day workouts, so do their prejudices.
Except that the film can hardly wait to get all corny and back slappy. The players become instant best buddies, engaging, at one point, in a locker room sing along of ”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (a great song that should be banned from movies as a feel good soul tonic). The jock lite camaraderie is like something out of a telephone commercial: It’s reach out and touch your fellow linebacker.
Back in town, the Titans’ new solidarity is tested by a society still mired in racism — and by a script that’s willing to trot out the cheapest tricks in the inspirational hack’s playbook (the white girlfriend who’s a cartoon bigot, a crucially timed auto accident). In a movie this treacly and glib, you can bet the team that plays together — racially, that is — slays together. Denzel Washington, by now, could do this sort of role in his sleep. To his credit, he gives a wide awake performance, but it’s time that he took on a character with a few more startling dimensions.