Judge Patrick F***ing Bromley really f***ing likes it when comedies get their goddamn mouths dirty.
If you can't find the perfect contender…make one.
A sports comedy? And it's written by Ron Shelton? Get outta here.
Facts of the Case
Professional boxing has gotten stale. The organization's leading promoter—the bombastic, Don Kingesque Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Brown, Deep Blue Sea)—can't find a fighter who can beat the reigning champ, James "The Grim Reaper" Roper (Damon Wayans, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, The Last Boy Scout). To garner some much-needed attention (not to mention a great deal of business), Sultan digs up the only man ever to beat the champ back in their amateur days, Terry Conklin (Peter Berg, The Last Seduction, Cop Land). As the big fight draws closer, the public begins to shift its affections away from the now out-of-shape champ and towards the newly-dubbed "Irish" Terry Conklin (despite the fact that he's not Irish), while the once-incorruptible and idealistic documentarian Mitchell Kane (Jeff Goldblum, The Fly, Independence Day), originally out to expose Sultan as a fraud, becomes a corporate shill. As always, at the center of it all—the man pulling the strings—is the Rev. Sultan.
Despite the fact that it was released only eight short years ago, Reginald Hudlin's The Great White Hype is a film from a bygone era. Prior to today's hypocritically antiseptic, PG-13 universe of filmmaking, some films were actually rated R for nothing more than language. Sex or violence weren't a prerequisite—directors allowed their characters to swear to their hearts' content, knowing that not every film needed to be edited down for the teenage crowd.
The Great White Hype is such a film. Though it contains no real nudity or violence to speak of, its R rating is well deserved for the seemingly endless stream of blue language gushing from the mouth of even the tiniest of bit players. And you know what? I'm glad, because sometimes swearing is funny. Make no mistake—I'm no blushing adolescent giggling at the mere mention of a four-letter word, but when a film knows how to cuss properly, I'm a happy boy. A film like this—about men, angry men, macho men with attitude to spare—has a way of turning its dialogue into a kind of profane poetry. The speech in The Great White Hype is reminiscent of Mamet in that way; it's tough talk—obscenity is second nature.
That one of the screenwriters on The Great White Hype is writer / director Ron Shelton should come as no surprise. He's an artist at this kind of tough talk; I would argue that the watering down of his PG-13 cop comedy Hollywood Homicide hurt the movie without broadening its audience—if ever there was a film that cried out for swearing, that was it. If you're not yet convinced, consider the man's resume: this is the guy responsible for Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, Tin Cup, and Play it to the Bone. In fact, up until 2003 (when he began dipping his toe in the cop film genre), I didn't think Shelton made anything but sports comedies. That might have been okay, too—for what he does, he's probably the best game in town. A former minor league ballplayer and sportswriter, Shelton knows the sports world inside and out; that knowledge bleeds all over his scripts. And while it helps immeasurably (think of every sports movie you've seen that clearly knows nothing about the game), I would argue that it's not what ultimately makes his movies work—that honor belongs to the characters he creates. His films are essentially always about the same thing: men with dreams undermined by their egos.
His presence on The Great White Hype is clearly felt, and yet the film could have used more of his voice. It's not necessarily about the sport of boxing; Shelton's Play it to the Bone had a great deal more insight into that subject. What this film deals with is the world surrounding championship boxing—the business / promotional / media side of the sport. And though the satire utilized is fairly obvious—everyone is an opportunist, right down to the new receptionist—it at least plays fair by making every character an equal target. Like Alexander Payne's brilliant Citizen Ruth (a sharper satire and superior film, but the comparison works), there is no playing favorites in The Great White Hype. Problem is, this kind of pure satire doesn't do much for generating character sympathy—a film populated by this many unlikable characters is difficult to maintain for feature length.
The cast that director Reginald Hudlin (who sometimes makes hip, funky fare like House Party and other times makes The Ladies' Man) and company have assembled for The Great White Hype is uniformly terrific. Samuel L. Jackson isn't necessarily any funnier than he has been in some of his more dramatic work, but the context has changed—he seems right at home in a comedy. Damon Wayans, though fairly unconvincing as a professional boxer, finds the right note for a guy bored with success and jaded by the sport. Even the smaller roles are filled by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Corbin Bernsen, Jon Lovitz, and Cheech Marin—an impressive roster for a film that basically disappeared under the radar.
Peter Berg's performance, on the other hand, is appropriately symptomatic of what's ultimately wrong with the movie. His portrayal of the dimwitted and superficially noble "Irish" Terry Conklin does have its share of bright spots (his constant insistence of fighting to rid the world of homelessness among them), but he has a tendency to play the role too broadly. He does funny work, but it belongs in a different film altogether. It's a trend that runs throughout the entire movie—there's never a really consistent tone to the proceedings, and it eventually collapses under the weight of its own unevenness. In addition to this, the script seems to abandon its satirical voice altogether at the film's climax by ditching any kind of creativity or surprise and following story logic explicitly. We are set up to believe things will end a certain way, and then they do exactly that; in a film about people scheming and double-crossing one another, why end on such a dull and abrupt note? It's as though they had run out of things to say.
Fox releases The Great White Hype along the same lines as its recent run of barebones, inexpensively priced catalog titles. On one side, the film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio; on the other is a modified 1.33:1 full frame presentation. Either is workable, but it's always best to go with the way the film was meant to be seen—especially when given the choice. The overall image is clear and colors are bright; no real complaints to speak of in the picture department. Actually, no complaints in the audio department either—the Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a great job of handling everything from dialogue to crowd noise to the film's hip-hop soundtrack. There is a minimal offering of extras, comprised only of the original theatrical trailer, a couple of bonus trailers, and a collection of behind-the-scenes production stills that are pretty much a waste of time.
Despite its stellar cast and some great foul-mouthed dialogue, The Great White Hype doesn't totally work—it's too inconsistent, and I can't decide if it's overly ambitious or not ambitious enough. It's probably best suited for fans of this particular brand of sports comedy, or for folks who like to lovingly think back to a time when some comedies were actually made for grownups.
Being that The Great White Hype fails to fully capitalize on its potential, the Court finds the film guilty of a misdemeanor. It also orders that all parties have their mouths washed out with soap, so that they may live a long life of further Dove-scented cursing.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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