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. C