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"Remember the Titans" is a film that's impossible not to like. Sure, it's manipulative and predictable, and as subtle as an oncoming train. But it's also lively and inspirational, with terrific performances from a big star and a host of supporting players.

That big star would be the ever-formidable Denzel Washington, cast here as Herman Boone, a real-life high school football coach who, in 1971, was given both the opportunity and the challenge of a lifetime. Court-ordered integration has forced previously all-white T.C. Williams High to enroll black students, and as the school's new head coach, it's up to him to overcome simmering racial hatred and field the championship team fans have come to expect in Virginia, where high-school football is a near-sacred institution.

Boone faces all sorts of obstacles, almost none having to do with football. His players pretty much hate each other. The former coach for T.C. Williams, now demoted to assistant, is the much-loved Bill Yoast (a quietly effective Will Patton), a community pillar who's about to be named to the state football Hall of Fame - which means the white population of Alexandria isn't exactly rolling out the welcome mat for Boone.

The black population has already put Boone on a pedestal, one he's not comfortable with, especially since he hasn't done anything yet. Even the Board of Education, which gave him the job, wants him to fail to bolster its argument opposing integration.

But Boone refuses to be daunted.

When two star players threaten to quit unless coach Yoast is put back in charge, he loudly calls them names and psychologically beats them into submission. And he forces black and white players to get to know each other, first by sitting together on the team bus, then by demanding that each player daily learn one fact about a teammate of the other race.

You don't have to like each other, coach Boone insists, but as teammates, you have to respect each other.

At first the players resist, but gradually their defenses break down, especially when it becomes clear that this team, featuring the best players from two formerly separate high-school powerhouses, has the potential to be awesome.

Director Boaz Yakin and screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard push all the essential buttons: allowing a relationship based on respect to form between Boone and Yoast; setting it up so that the white team captain (Ryan Hurst) and the black team leader (Wood Harris) start out as enemies, grudgingly accept each other as teammates and then become fast friends; even bringing in a pair of outsiders - Ethan Suplee as that oldest of football cliches, the overweight blocker who provides comic relief, and Kip Pardue as a West Coast hippie-type who throws like Johnny Unitas - to show their new teammates the right way to act.

Somehow, "Remember the Titans" never lapses into overkill. It tries, most egregiously when it uses the hoary clichM-i of group sing-alongs to Motown classics to reinforce how easily black and white culture can mesh.

But just when you're ready to roll your eyes for the last time, the film throws in another dynamite football sequence (energetically designed and choreographed - the viewer feels every hit - by former USFL player Mike Fisher), or focuses on its talented young cast, or lets 9-year-old charmer Hayden Panetteire (as Yoast's football-crazed daughter), hog the camera.

It's possible the film succeeds, however, because we so desperately want it to.

At a time when Americans like to think we've come far in matters of race, movies like this - where success has nothing to do with skin color, and where reasonable people are able to overcome their prejudices - represent what we like to think of as reality.

Perhaps most wisely, though, the film lets Denzel Washington be Denzel Washington, and that never hurts. I don't know if the real Herman Boone had Washington's killer gaze, unforced authority or unflinching self-confidence; if he did, those racist kids never had a chance.

Movies this week

"Remember the Titans" ***

"Beautiful" **

"The Idiots" ** 1/2 Page 8e

"Barenaked in America" ** Page 8e

"Sex: The Annabel Chong Story" ** 1/2 Page 8e

Rating system: Excellent: ***; Good: ***; Fair: **; Poor: *

Remember the Titans

Starring Denzel Washington and Will Patton

Directed by Boaz Yakin

Released by Walt Disney Films

Running time 107 minutes

Rated PG (Language, football violence)

Sun score: ***

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