No, it's not fair to judge a book by its cover, although that's precisely what the young black and white football players do during their first encounters in "Remember the Titans." And it's difficult not to judge one particular name dangling near the title of this gung-ho sports drama and wonder what the producer of pricey, violent fare like "Con Air" and "The Rock" is doing in a milieu like this, a serious, sober-minded piece spiked with bits of comic relief. Jerry Bruckheimer, now at work on a war film ("Pearl Harbor") purported to be the most expensive movie ever made, typically specializes in the following: Blowing up stuff (cars, buildings, planets). Blowing up bad guys. Sparing most of the good guys (and girls), usually. Blowing up the hero's ego.
This time, with help from director Boaz Yakin (A Price Above Rubies) and screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard's adaptation of a true story, Bruckheimer blows up the racial animosities. When in 1971 two high schools on opposite sides of the track in Alexandria, Va., were forcibly integrated, exceedingly ugly tension resulted. Legendary area white coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) was demoted to assistant to the new guy, African American Herman Boone (Denzel Washington). The widely publicized result of the merger was a practically unstoppable football team.
Too bad Bruckheimer and Co. didn't simultaneously nuke the clichéd conventions of the race-relations genre. That feel-good, happy-happy approach, on display for example in 1995's "Dangerous Minds" (also produced by Bruckheimer), dates all the way back to 1967's "To Sir, With Love" and beyond. Maybe it's the Disney-izing factor, but "Remember the Titans" too often comes off as an "A" -for-good-intentions effort. A little bit of grit might have been sprinkled on the subject. What would Spike have done?
Yakin's choice is to deftly avoid anything more than cursory examinations of the deeply rooted reasons for the racial polarization at the school and, initially, on the team. These are young African-American men who had recently, and for a long time, been treated as second-class citizens in their own hometown. That reality typically bred resentment, and still does. Did those feelings really just melt away after the Titans began their winning streak? Did the communal singing of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and other R&B hits work as a salve for the bitterness? Did Herman's white neighbors really come outside and clap for the coach after his string of victories on the field?
True, "Remember the Titans" hints at the nasty edge of race relations. School-board members, referees and other education officials are quick to sign on for a conspiracy to rid the town of Herman; white parents line up outside to stare at the black students on the first day of school; and a black athlete is fearful of being caught in a white part of town, despite his status as the team's star. But the film is mostly focused on the new coach's efforts to whip the team in shape, his growing friendship with his assistant and the glories of male bonding.
Washington, fresh off his Oscar-nominated work in The Hurricane, inflates his performance with every bit of humanity, empathy and believability that the script will allow. He's a demanding, ambitious achiever -- "We will be perfect in every aspect of the game," he tells his young charges at one point -- who eventually allows himself to relax a little bit and bask in his accomplishments. Patton, last seen in Bruckheimer's Gone in 60 Seconds, also goes the distance as the put-upon insider who arrives at a truce with the brash outsider. Too bad the rest of the film isn't up to the exacting standards of its lead actors.