Review: 'Pride' sinks fast 

There’s nothing like artificial uplift to ruin a genuinely inspirational story, and that’s what happens with "Pride," the latest sports-drama-with-an-extraordinary-mentor-hero released from the mill.

This time, the protagonist is Jim Ellis, the real-life Philadelphian who, in the 1970s, started what would become an immensely successful swim team consisting of African-American youths living in one of the city’s most neglected areas. His efforts have brought numerous kids hope in addition to trophies.

The glory road begins when Ellis (played by Terrence Howard), unable to find teaching work, accepts a municipal job that involves shutting down the dilapidated Marcus Foster rec center, which is staffed by a do-nothing janitor named Elston (Bernie Mac). Ellis invites a group of teens, after the city removes the basketball rims they’ve been using, to swim in the center’s pool. Soon, he’s coaching the boys and turning them into a competitive team. Initially disastrous, they become winners, in and out of the water.

In short, blah blah. While it’s impossible to dislike this story, and it’s fine for younger viewers, the film is yet another forgettable example of a terrific real-life achievement dramatized tritely.

What makes sports flicks with mentor heroes succeed isn’t so much the big-match climax but, rather, the chance to witness the small, but in their own way magnificent, breakthroughs that branded-as-hopeless people experience when somebody constructively recognizes their potential. Instead, newcomer director Sunu Gonera and his four screenwriters offer up stock cliches, including an underdog with a stutter and a sole girl on the team. The villains — a white racist coach (Tom Arnold) and a black hood (Gary Sturgis) — are also caricatures.

As a sheer sports flick, too, the film’s unextraordinary. Swimming isn’t the most visually stirring sport to begin with, and Gonera adds to the lackluster by failing to convey the psychological appeal it has for its champions. The climax, complete with "inspirational" music, is straight from the mold.

As a portrait of Ellis, the movie fares better, and that’s largely Howard’s doing. Both deep and nuanced, he creates a resonantly striving and caring protagonist who keeps us from emotionally bailing.

Also noteworthy is Mac, who’s entertaining even if you can’t buy his character’s quick transformation. Kimberly Elise, playing a councilwoman who gets stuck with some of the movie’s worst lines ("This place is a nesting ground for drugs, thugs and the lowest common denominator"), is wasted.

Pride **

Starring Terrence Howard, Bernie Mac, Kimberly Elise, Tom Arnold

Written by Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe, Norman Vance Jr.

Directed by Sunu Gonera

Rated PG

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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