For thirty years Hollywood considered sports movies box-office poison--even after Rocky Balboa went the distance with Apollo Creed. The American sports mania didn't hit the movie industry until the mid-Eighties--about the time Resume Speed, Texas, got wired for cable--but right now the white men who run the show can't jump fast enough into the next jock-pic project.
Ron Shelton, who helped break the line with the baseball comedy Bull Durham, watched his screenplay for Blue Chips gather dust for more than twelve years. Now that it's finally been filmed, this story of hypocrisy and corruption in big-time college basketball doesn't have quite the kick it once might have. But veteran director and lifelong hoops fan William Friedkin moves the picture along like a fast break, and Nick Nolte puts in another terrific performance as a head coach confronting a midlife crisis.
Sports nuts, meanwhile, will enjoy playing spot-the-star. That's ex-Celtics great Bob Cousy as the athletic director of fictional Western University and NBA rookie Anfernee Hardaway as sweet-shooting recruit Butch McRae. Coaches Bobby Knight, Jim Boeheim, Lou Campanelli and Jerry Tarkanian appear as themselves, the game sequences are well-stocked with pro players, and Larry Bird does a rather stiff hometown cameo in French Lick, Indiana. As for seven-foot-two-inch Shaquille O'Neal--who's got more careers these days than Michael Jordan--it's hard to miss his less-than-auspicious acting debut.
Our hero, temperamental coach Pete Bell (Nolte), has won eight conference championships and two national titles at Western--without cheating. But his once-dominant Dolphins (Dolphins?) are now on the verge of their first losing season in years. Bell faces the usual media and alumni pressure to win again, but he doesn't have the players to do it.
You could write the rest, couldn't you?
For the first time, Coach Bell betrays himself and the game he loves by buckling under to illegal recruiting. The poor but ambitious mother of a high school sharpshooter in Chicago (Hardaway) demands a new job and a house; a talented Indiana farmboy (Matt Nover) gets a bagful of cash and his dad scores a new tractor; a raw, slam-dunking "project" named Neon Bodeaux (O'Neal) suddenly finds a new Lexus parked in front of his house near New Orleans.
In return, Pete Bell and Western U. land the best freshman class in college basketball. But can the coach live with himself?
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In this era of routine recruiting violations and frequent NCAA suspensions in college sports, Blue Chips won't come as a shock to most people. But Friedkin shows as much instinct for the inner workings of the game and for the emotional roller-coaster of coaching as he showed for car chases in The French Connection or satanic possession in The Exorcist. All along, we have a pretty good idea how Shelton's cookie-cutter scenario will end. But atmosphere outranks plot here. Friedkin's glimpses of calamity in the locker room, the blandishments of coaches hot on the trails of blue-chip prospects in the off-season, and the adolescent fantasies of alumni boosters like J.T. Walsh's slimy manipulator, Happy Kuykendahl, provide an up-close-and-personal look at the realities (and the frequent absurdities) of college sports.
Football got a similar going-over recently in The Program, and Gene Hackman appeared to have retired the trophy as the movies' ultimate hoops coach in Hoosiers. But Nolte manages to enliven this rather predictable picture with another splendid acting job: In Pete Bell we see not only the hackneyed "will to win" but the technical skills of a committed teacher; not just the pride of a professional but the caring inside a man who understands kids and their problems. Without much to work with in the script, he comes up with another fully detailed character we can feel for--despite the familiarity of his moral dilemma. The picture is also speckled with wit, and that always helps.
Shelton's obligatory subplot about the bright and affectionate ex-wife (prissy Mary McDonnell) who just can't live with the coach's ups and downs contributes very little, and, while awkwardly appealing in places, emerging NBA superstar O'Neal might do well to confine himself to power moves in the paint: The Old Vic won't be recruiting him to play Othello anytime soon.
Meanwhile, it looks as though sports will continue to be a hot ticket in Hollywood, from the hardwood to the fields of dreams. Yo, Adrian! Listen up: Ron Shelton's next movie will be a biography of Ty Cobb.