Judge David Johnson has never accepted payment to play a sport—well, except for that ice cream cone his T-ball coach bought him that one day.
"You took the purest thing in your life and corrupted it, for what? For what?"
Blue Chips introduced Shaquille O'Neal to the moviegoing public. While marketed as a crossover film for the basketball phenom, Blue Chips is more than just a star vehicle for the NBA baller—it's a slice of basketball nihilism.
Facts of the Case
Pete Bell (Nick Nolte, Hotel Rwanda) is the fiery head basketball coach for the fictional Western University. Bell is a legend in the sport, having won several national titles and a slew of conference championships. His latest season, however, has proven to be less than stellar—it's his first ever with a losing record.
Western has suffered in the ultra-competitive market of high school recruiting, lagging behind other top schools in securing the nation's burgeoning talent. A controversy over an alleged point-shaving scandal several years ago has led to a recruitment drought.
Bell is an old-fashioned coach, committed to running as clean a basketball program as he can. But when the pressures from alumni and fans to win rain down on him, he begins to loosen his ethics. As he woos the three top players in the nation—Butch McRae (Anfernee Hardaway), Ricky Roe (Matt Nover), and Neon (O'Neal)—he realizes that to get signed letters of intent, there will be a steep price.
For Butch, it's a house for his mother; for Ricky, a new tractor for his father and a duffel bag full of cash; and for Neon, a new car. Bell is faced with compromising his scruples for the opportunity to win again—but it would be trade-off that runs counter to everything he stands for.
Blue Chips isn't necessarily a sports movie; it's a cautionary tale that just happens to be about basketball. Don't expect to be uplifted; Blue Chips is not Hoosiers or Rudy. Director William Friedkin and writer Ron Shelton have lifted a rock and made a film about what lurks underneath.
Basketball in Blue Chips is not a pure sport anymore. Through Bell's eyes we see the yearning for that purity, but in the face of incredible pressure from external sources (J.T. Walsh plays a great, sleazy alumni director named Happy), he sacrifices his conscience on the altar of hoop victory. The characters in the film look at basketball not as a sport but as a method to better themselves. For Butch McRae it's a way to get his mom the house she's always wanted, for Ricky Roe it's loads of cash, for Happy it's success for his alma mater, and for Bell, the last one to the "gimme" party, it's recapturing that feeling of winning.
Though Shaq gets second billing and commands more disc-jacket space than Nick Nolte, make no mistake: This is Nick's movie. Shaq has only a slightly bigger role than his fellow ball players, Hardaway and Nover. Nolte's Bell is our character study, a short-tempered, often outrageous presence on the sidelines (clearly modeled after Bob Knight, who also makes a cameo as an opposing coach), who has been known to kick basketballs into the stands and scream at refs until his face turns the color of a raspberry torte. We follow Bell as he winds up his first losing season ever, to the intense recruiting off-season. The film lives and dies with Nolte. The guy brings the necessary intensity to the role, and I absolutely bought the fact he was a coach, though there are a few spots where his performance is just too over-the-top.
The opening scene in the locker room, where Bell chews out his squad, is a good example. This is the first time we meet Bell, and he is absolutely unhinged; he belittles his players, curses their existence, and causes some property damage. Yet the remainder of the film the audience is supposed to be sold on the idea that Bell is actually a decent guy that respects his players (he consistently lauds that squad for playing their hearts out) and lives by a set of firm ethics. But Nolte's portrayal of Bell in the locker room going absolutely ape dirt sets this character up as, at best, an antihero, and at worst, a jackass who deserves whatever grief he's going to get. An argument can be made that Friedkin is setting up an arc for Bell to follow, but the simple fact is that right out of the gate our protagonist comes across as a douchebag.
Another reason this is a character study more than a sports movie is that the actual basketball scenes are few and lack punch. The climactic game between Bobby Knight's Hoosier team, which features then-players Calbert Cheaney and Bobby Hurley, and Bell's bought-and-paid-for all-star squad is empty and thrill-free. There's no one to root for. The true fireworks come at the press conference following the game, which is the film's highlight, and Nolte's best performance in the movie.
The much-ballyhooed debut of Shaq turns out to be anticlimactic. His role is minimal, with those backboard-shaking dunks of his the real star. I think Shaq is a dominant basketball force and a pretty good guy all around, but he made the right choice in not aggressively pursuing a movie career.
Blue Chips receives a standard, threadbare release. Technically, there's nothing to complain about—video is a strong anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer boasting some vivid colors; and the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, while front-loaded, is robust enough. A lack of special features is perplexing (how about a commentary by O'Neal?).
This unique sports tale bids farewell to its inspirational brethren and takes a cynical look at the art of winning. Perhaps underappreciated due to the Shaq hype, Blue Chips is worth a look because of Nolte's performance and an unflinching message.
The movie is let off the hook, but Paramount should ride the bench for a minimalist treatment.
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