Not all wet

Terrence Howard's star power saves formulaic film about Philly swim coach

Posted: March 23, 2007

"Pride" is a biopic of Philadelphia Department of Recreation legend Jim Ellis, but at times it feels like a drive down "Glory Road" to see "Coach Carter."

The details of Ellis' remarkable career as the aquatics coach who's turned hundreds of city kids into scholarship swimmers are heavily fictionalized, and "Pride" feels at times like a knockoff of other popular movies.

That's Hollywood, though, and if you're Coach Ellis, you could do worse than having yourself played by Terrence Howard, the charismatic leading man who (along with co-star Bernie Mac) provides enough star power to ignite the durable sports-underdog formula at the heart of "Pride."

"Pride" is set in the 1970s, when Ellis (a swimming star at what was then Cheyney State College) arrives in Philadelphia to revamp an underused swimming facility, the Marcus Foster Pool, in Nicetown (the movie actually was filmed in Shreveport, La.).

Rehabbing the facility is just part of the battle. Ellis has to convince basketball-playing youngsters that swimming is a worthy test of their athletic mettle, and city officials (like Kimberly Elise) that more money for city pools is a good investment. Bernie Mac is the disbelieving maintenance man who thinks that Ellis is wasting his time.

The kids are cocky and learn the hard way that swimming isn't as easy at it looks - this is fodder for a few comic scenes. But Ellis' goal isn't to humiliate, it's to encourage, and "Pride" works fairly well as a profile of a mentor with an innate genius for motivating young people.

Swimming becomes an alternative to the street, a road to self-confidence, a conduit to improved academic performance. Worthy themes, all of them, but "Pride" would have felt immensely more vivid if some of the young men used to illustrate them had been given more attention by the screenwriters.

Also emerging from what feels like the Hollywood Bag of Tricks are the villainous characters who inhabit a fictitious "Main Line Academy," apparently some kind of magnet school for racists in Lower Merion, led by a flat-topped bully of a coach (Tom Arnold). His blond storm-troopers taunt and assault the visiting Philadelphia swimmers, setting up a payback rematch.

In the end, we're left in "Pride" with what the actors can bring to it, and it bobs along on the buoyancy of charm and dignity that Howard brings to the role of Coach Ellis.

Produced by Brett Forbes, Patrick Rizzotti, Michael Ohoven, Adam Rosenfelt, Paul Hall, directed by Sunu Gonera, written by Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe, Morman Vance Jr., music by Aaron Zigman, distributed by Lions Gate.

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