As a film, “Glory Road” stands at the distinct disadvantage of having to follow in the footsteps not of just one, but rather two fairly entrenched Hollywood favorites. Telling the (mostly) true story of the upstart 1965 Texas Western basketball team, which started five black players in its David-and-Goliath national championship victory over the University of Kentucky, the film is forced to tread a fine line between “Remember the Titans” and “Hoosiers.” Elements of both movies are certainly detectable in “Glory Road” — a tough-minded coach determined to stick to the fundamentals and a talented yet turbulent team that must pull together in order to overcome racial hatred. Unfortunately, though, “Glory Road” seems too conscious of the vast cinematic legacy left by T.C. Williams and Hickory High (iconic sports film underdogs) to break any ground of its own.
The film’s chief misfortune is certainly not that its subject matter is cliché. After all, more than one good movie can be made about the same sport — see “Rocky,” “Raging Bull,” “Cinderella Man” et al. Nor is the storyline itself a problem: the 1965 national championship game is widely considered one of the most important games in basketball history. But the way “Glory Road” tells that story somehow ends up feeling less than inspired.
The film never manages to step out of the shadow of its predecessors, never challenges the viewer with anything that hasn’t been seen before. As the Texas Western Miners and their intrepid young coach Don Haskins (Paul Lucas) journey deeper into their season and amass more wins, one would expect the tension to be building — only it isn’t. The film simply cruises predictably on to its happy conclusion, the expected ups and downs occurring with near-formulaic regularity.
“Glory Road” begins by introducing Don Haskins, who, before receiving the offer to coach collegiate ball in El Paso, coaches high school girls in rural Texas. Haskins belongs to a certain breed of coach tailor-made for the silver screen: outfitted with a mellow Southwestern drawl, he seems just as capable of chewing out his two-hundred-forty pound power forward as he does of charming the socks off that player’s mother. Dead set on winning over one particular recruit, Haskins amplifies his genteel charisma by enjoying a piece of homemade pie with the recruit’s mother.
Lucas gives a solid and convincing performance throughout “Glory Road,” but scenes like this one almost leave the viewer wishing Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale would step into the frame and deliver that infectious grin of his.
The rest of “Glory Road” follows a similar pattern: the acting is graceful and evocative, and Jerry Bruckheimer’s production is smooth and seamless, but nearly every element is reminiscent of something that’s already been done. Texas Western’s long midseason winning streak garners the requisite montage, complete with press clippings flashed across the screen and a Motown soundtrack played in the background. Even during the team’s bus rides from one game to the next, the white and black players compare their disparate musical tastes a la “Remember the Titans.”
“Glory Road” does excel its predecessors in one important respect, however: its portrayal of racial prejudice and violence in mid-1960s America is unabashedly frank and even, at times, graphic. Whereas the Titans of T.C. Williams High School faced widespread resentment and institutional racism, the black players of Texas Western are confronted with a far more tangible, far more menacing sense of hatred. In one scene, the team returns to their hotel rooms to find the walls covered with messages smeared in blood. In another, a player is brutally assaulted by a group of white men in a diner restroom. The film displays bigotry as more than simply wrongheaded: it is shown to be dangerous, capable of inciting actions whose effects are disturbingly tangible. Eschewing the melodramatic, “Glory Road” should be lauded for its honest treatment of racial vitriol.
At a time when our nation is commemorating the life and works of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the story told by “Glory Road” is of particular relevance. Unfortunately, one only wishes that the filmmakers had infused the story with more imagination and energy. The remarkable accomplishments of the 1965 Texas Western basketball team deserve a more fitting homage than “Remember the Hoosiers” or “Titans Redux.”