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REMEMBER THE TITANS

by: Scott Renshaw

That clicking sound you hear throughout Remember the Titans is the sound of buttons being pushed. It pushes the "initially-antagonistic characters become best friends" button (click). It pushes the "cute, precocious kid" button (click). It pushes the "nostalgic use of classic rock" button (click click). It pushes the "socially-conscious heroes vs. snarling, racist villains" button (click click click). And it pushes the "underdog sports team overcoming adversity to win" button (click click click click click click click), with a side order of the "win one for the Gipper" button (sound of a data processing center at full staff).

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has made a career out of overseeing button-pushing entertainments, but Remember the Titans deals with a different set of buttons entirely, and does so with such surprising effectiveness that you probably won't care how pre-programmed it all is. The fact-based story is set in 1971 in Alexandria, Virginia, where local school boards are finally getting around to segregating. A single new high school is being created out of one all-black school and one all-white school, which means that the members of their respective football teams are now teammates. Taking on the daunting task of pulling the two squads together is Herman Boone (Denzel Washington), brought up from South Carolina to face plenty of hostility. Not only are half of his players and most of the town power-brokers against him, he also has to contend with Bill Yoast (Will Patton), the local coach whose job he took and who may be an uncomfortable fit as Boone's defensive coordinator.

The film kicks off with a long segment devoted to the team's training camp retreat to Gettysburg, and sets a fine tone in the process. Washington -- who has been slumming in some ghastly scripts of late -- gives Boone the perfect level of intensity, particularly in early comic scenes where he shows his players exactly who's in charge. There are plenty of stock types among the players, but they're performed with a bit more subtlety than we've come to expect in films of this kind. Ethan Suplee is more interesting than the token fat guy tends to be; Wood Harris and Ryan Hurst gives some depth to the defensive stars who develop a respect that turns into friendship. Director Boaz Yakin uses both his facility with actors and the talents of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot to craft a glossy but satisfying story of teammates coming together in adversity. It's fundamentally sound stuff, and it gets you laughing and cheering in all the right places.

It may be a case of how well the training camp scenes work, but Remember the Titans is never quite as strong once the Titans are battling other teams instead of each other. Part of the problem is the ridiculous, intrusive use of a public address announcer as the voice of In Case You Haven't Been Paying Any Attention At All ("That's six yards for star quarterback Ronnie Bass;" "There's time for one more play for the Titans to win it"). It also becomes clear that screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard isn't going to dig any deeper than absolutely necessary into the psychology of his characters. Boone's focus on proving his own worth, perhaps at the expense of his team, is given only token attention; the personality differences between Boone and Yoast are so muted, you'd think they'd been colleagues for life. For an hour or so, Titans simply alternates game footage with minor social disturbances, providing only a fraction of a glimpse into how these players supposedly pulled a town from the brink of racial apocalypse.

Still, it's a good old-fashioned underdog sports film, and it's hard to deny that it works when it has to. The precocious kid -- Coach Yoast's nine-year-old daughter Sheryl, played by Disney voice-over kid Hayden Panettiere (A Bug's Life, Dinosaur) -- provides appealing comic relief, and the game footage is generally well-crafted. Yakin

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