'Pride' lacks pride of place

Posted: March 23, 2007

It can be argued - especially in this day of digital filmmaking and green-screen effects - that shooting on location, even when that location is integral to the story, is no longer a necessity.

Look at 300 (and a kazillion people have): Behold ancient Greece in all its glory, and not a Spartan grunt nor Persian warmonger strayed anywhere beyond the confines of a Montreal soundstage.

But it also can be argued that a sense of place adds authenticity to a tale, a richness of detail. Particularly, as is the case of the "inspired by a true story" Pride, when that place is rough-and-tumble Philadelphia, with its mix of colonial-era landmarks, tumbledown 19th-century industrial edifices, humble rowhouses, and Main Line mansions.

But like last year's totally bogus Philly crime pic 10th and Wolf (shot in Pittsburgh), the filmmakers behind Pride seem to care little, if at all, about getting their environs right. A fictionalized account of swim coach Jim Ellis - a Philadelphia Department of Recreation employee and onetime college swim star who, from the shabby precincts of a North Philly public pool, has trained mostly poor, mostly black kids to become contenders - Pride was made in Shreveport, La. to help boost the area post-Katrina. From the basketball court of the "Marcus Foster" rec center in the movie, the stubby skyline of the Southern burg sits in plain view.

An establishing credit sequence shot of Philadelphia - with the helicopter fly-in along the blue spans of the Ben Franklin Bridge - is real, but even that is wrong: Pride is set in 1974, a good decade before a building topped City Hall's statue of William Penn. But there's today's skyline, with its jutting glass and steel 'scrapers dwarfing be-hatted Billy.

Sure, audiences who don't know Philly from Shreveport won't notice, or mind. But the movie's carelessness spills over into its plot, its screenplay, and its fundamental credibility.

A generic against-the-odds underdog sports drama, Pride stars Terrence Howard as Ellis, depicted here as a careerless young man who stumbles into a job for the city's Recreation Department. Basically, he's been hired to clean up and close down the Marcus Foster facility, a dilapidated heap. As a pretty councilwoman (Kimberly Elise) tells him, Marcus Foster has become "a nesting ground for drugs, thugs, and the lowest common denominator." Demolition is the solution.

But then Ellis spies its old, empty pool, and a bunch of kids outside shooting hoops in the sweltering summer heat. What if he filled the pool and let them swim around?

And what if they started splashing around and showed real talent?

And what if they formed a swim team, and a training regimen, and could compete at local meets?

And what if they overcame the squalid facilities, the nagging self-doubts, the lure of the street, and the racism represented by an all-white, all-snooty Main Line team (coached by Tom Arnold) to achieve a modicum of glory? (Yes, the movie could have been called Pride and Prejudice - but the racial issues are every bit as cliched as the sports formula.)

What if they call themselves the PDR: for Philadelphia Department of Recreation, but also for Pride, Determination and Resilience?

With Bernie Mac as the rec center's crabby old custodian, cracking crabby old jokes, and Brandon Fobbs, Alphonso McAuley, Nate Parker, Kevin Phillips, Evan Ross and Regine Nehy (yikes, a girl!) as the promising teammates, Pride runs through its checklist of setbacks and triumphs en route to a championship meet.

Howard, in sideburns and '70s couture, offers a series of inspirational speeches between training montages and racing scenes. His Ellis isn't perfect, and he suffers his own fall from grace. But there's redemption at the end.

If only the screenplay had more going for it than hackneyed homilies and living-in-the-ghetto stereotypes. If only first-time director Sunu Gonera had a surer hand, a knack for something bolder, wilder, goofier.

If only Pride were really a Philadelphia story.

Pride ** (out of four stars)

Produced by Brett Forbes, Patrick Rizzotti, Michael Ohoven, Adam Rosenfelt and Paul Hall, directed by Sunu Gonera, written by Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe and Norman Vance Jr., photography by Matthew F. Leonetti, music by the O'Jays, the Isley Brothers and various artists, distributed by Lionsgate Releasing.

Running time: 1 hour, 48 mins.

Jim Ellis............................ Terrence Howard

Elston. . . Bernie Mac

Sue Davis. . . Kimberly Elise

Puddin' Head .................... Brandon Fobbs

Bink. . . Tom Arnold

Parent's guide: PG (profanity, violence, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.

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