A good concept fails to become a good movie in this predictable tale of corruption in college basketball, featuring the ubiquitous superstar and corporate pitchman Shaquille O'Neal.
Western University hoops coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte), his sterling career troubled by three so-so seasons, is getting desperate to hold on to his job and his winning reputation. He's proud that all his kids graduate, yet his refusal to pay players under the table means he can't compete for top
talent. Enter sleazy alumni coordinator Happy (J.T. Walsh), and suddenly things begin falling into place. Tough Louisiana bayou player Neon (O'Neal) actually wants an education and signs on when Pete's ex-wife (Mary McDonnell), a grade-school teacher, offers to tutor him. As good as his word, he
refuses the new luxury car that Happy sends him. Not so Pete's other prospects. Butch (Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, Shaq's Orlando Magic teammate ) gets a better job and new house for his mom (Alfre Woodard). Ricky (Matt Nover) wants cash and a new tractor for his farmer dad. When Happy begins
making himself a fixture around the locker room, Pete tries to throw him out. Happy retaliates by revealing that, two seasons earlier, one of Pete's top players took money from him to shave points. Happy threatens to spread the dirt and ruin Pete's career if he doesn't toe the line. With his new
super starters, Pete easily wins his first game against Bobby Knight's feared Indiana Hoosiers. But he feels lousy and, at the post-game news conference, tells all and turns in his resignation while Happy sputters on the sidelines.
Of all the possible directions William Friedkin could have taken with writer-executive producer Ron (BULL DURHAM) Shelton's script, he seems to have picked the least interesting, making Pete's quandary over paying players--a moral no-brainer--the crux of his film. That such things happen will
hardly come as news to anyone even remotely familiar with college sports, and neither Friedkin nor Shelton has found a new or revealing angle. Worse, Friedkin handles the issue with a heavy-handed hysteria that keeps threatening to push the film into self-parody. No explanation is given for
righteous Pete's flipping over to the dark side. Normally stalwart characters drifting into insanity under pressure is a familiar Friedkin theme (see THE FRENCH CONNECTION, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.); here, however, it doesn't click particularly well because the situation is less credible than
usual, even for a Friedkin film. After all, Pete does manage to recruit Neon "cleanly," and--let's face it--any coach who can't win with Shaq leading his team should hand in his whistle without delay.
Neon, who's set up as a tough-minded voice of conscience, falls by the wayside, as does McDonnell, after some terrific early scenes with Nolte filled with the kind of verbal spark and byplay that characterized the best scenes in BULL DURHAM. The film comes to be dominated by huge close-ups of
Nolte furrowing his brow, with Happy chortling away nearby, sandwiched between two blond, pneumatic armrests. The recent film BLUE CHIPS most closely resembles is David S. Ward's underrated football drama THE PROGRAM, which rang truer by sweating precisely the telling details of life in the
college ranks that CHIPS ignores in favor of its stale expose. Pete could at least have learned something from James Caan's Coach Winters, who stays with his program after a crisis-packed season that makes Pete's seem serene by comparison. Instead, Pete quits, and, as even rookie little leaguers
know, quitters never win. (Profanity, adult situations.) leave a comment