Not all movies about basketball are as good as “Hoosiers” with Gene Hackman (and its two Oscar nominations), just as all golf movies can never be the classic that is “Caddyshack” (although many have tried and all but one failed since). However, director William Friedkin nearly hit a three-pointer with “Blue Chips” in 1994 and was able to entertain with good work with his actors as well as a top-shelf’s worth of cameos from the real basketball world at the time (as well the two NBA stars who have big parts in the film). The reason? Most likely it’s the writer. Here’s one time where ethics wins out in sports – but remember, it’s only in the movies.
(1994; 108 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by William Friedkin and starring Nick Nolte, Mary McDonnell and J.T. Walsh)
WINNING THE WRONG WAY DOESN’T SIT WELL
I haven’t ever written a review where I started with a movie’s writer, but Ron Shelton is the reason that the basketball film “Blue Chips” with Nick Nolte is worth watching. After all he wrote a few other good sports films: say, “Bull Durham,” “Tin Cup” and another hoops film, “White Men Can’t Jump.” Shelton was co-writer on “Tin Cup” and directed all three.
Purists will say he tried too hard to push the zen-like philosophy of golf in “Tin Cup” and didn’t develop it slowly like he did with baseball in “Bull Durham.” While “Blue Chips” is a good film, it’s not a great film for all the work of Shelton and director William “The French Connection” Friedkin. I’m not sure it could have been, but it has great jobs by two big-time NBA stars (Shaquille O’Neal and “Penny” Hardaway) and the best post-game press conference of all time on screen.
The story for “Blue Chips” is simple. Nolte is “Pete Bell” and he’s the head coach of a university whose former championship team is on a downward spiral. Why? He won’t cheat: no gifts, no cash and no incentive. All that does is push away the top recruits. So, after his first losing season, he caves and lets a blustering, egotistical booster start handing out the cash, favors and gifts – and three of the country’s top prospects come running. The film also shows how coaches almost stalk the nation’s top players and will do just about anything to get an edge.
However, winning by cheating doesn’t have the taste that even an honest losing team giving its all can bring. Nolte simply can’t live with it and after winning the big game walks off the court and stands up in front of everyone and admits – EVERYTHING. He even mocks his own university’s giving a tractor to one recruit’s father.
Along the way in “Blue Chips” you’ll see (then) NBA star (legend now) O’Neal get coached up to take the SAT – hint, he doesn’t need it – and a terrific supporting performance by Mary McDonnell as Nolte’s ex-wife and ex-tutor to the team who grudgingly agrees to work with O’Neal.
All in all, it’s a pretty good ride … especially with the cameos by basketball’s elite at the time. Check out the list at the end of the review.
Nolte is almost as good here as he was in his work a decade earlier in “48 Hrs.” with Eddie Murphy. Nolte also did “Under Fire” and “Teachers” in the 1980s before getting his first of three Oscar nominations in 1992’s horrid “Prince of Tides” with the execrable effort by the overrated Barbara Streisand (I believe you can take a hint here about how I feel about that film). He’s just right with his sarcastic wit, passion when necessary and the all-out energy needed in his profession. He even joins the singing at a raucous church service (he’s familiar with all religions from the recruiting trail). I also like Nolte in “The Deep” and “North Dallas Forty” (click here for my review).
The biggest treat of “Blue Chips” is O’Neal and Hardaway (whose first name is Anfernee). Both are wheedled onto the team – Haradaway, who plays “Butch McRae,” to help his mom (Alfre Woodard) get a better job and house; and O’Neal, who plays “Neon Boudeaux” just because he wants to (he turns down the offer of a Lexus). Both are uncommonly good athletes stepping into a film arena and they are fun to watch each time they’re on screen – especially O’Neal since he always appears to be pushing everyone’s buttons just for the fun of it.
O’Neal has 22 acting credits in TV and films (often playing himself) and after his first movie with “Blue Chips” has been in films as diverse as “Kazaam” and “Freddy Got Fingered.” O’Neal did manage to get nominated for a “Razzie” award for the “worst new actor” of the year for this one. Hardaway has only one acting credit after “Blue Chips” and it was him doing an episode of TV’s “Cribs.”
As the third member of the terrible trio, Matt Nover as farmboy “Ricky Roe,” who is a Larry Bird-like player, does a nice turn in the role and manages to quietly keep up with the other two. Nover’s only acting credit is for “Blue Chips” and he was actually the Indiana boy that he portrayed so well in this film (but didn’t accept gifts to play college hoops, I hope).
While McDonnell is the erstwhile interest of Nolte, she crafts a solid piece of work out of a role that could have been window dressing in the wrong actor’s hands. She plays it smart, sharp and in control and pulls it off well. In “Blue Chips,” McDonell was coming off two Oscar nominations in the previous three years (“Dances With Wolves” and “Passion Fish,” the latter with Woodard) when she made this one. She’s also been in “Independence Day.”
Two rather wasted roles with good talent is J.T. Walsh as eager-to-buy-wins booster “Happy Kuykendahl” and Ed O’Neill (no relation to Shaq) as the investigative sports reporter so cleverly named “Ed,” who is out to nail Nolte for the coach’s previous favorite player who cheated. Both actors are good, but really don’t get the chance they deserve here. I guess it was at the expense of O’Neal and Hardaway and I wouldn’t turn it around if I even had the choice. Walsh has been in “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “A Few Good Men” while O’Neil was in “Dutch” (click here for my review) and the putrid “The Adventures of Ford Fairlaine” (check this one out if you want to see one of the 10 worst films of all time).
Another Oscar nominee who does a good job is Woodard, who plays “Lavonda McRae.” She’s a tough-as-nails negotiator as she secures the future for her son and family. Woodward, who was nominated for “Cross Creek” a decade earlier, was also in the wonderful, little-remembered “K-PAX” with Kevin Spacey.
Two other supporting actors lost in the crowd are basketball great Marques Johnson and Robert Wuhl. Both are shunted aside with tiny roles. Johnson, plays “Mel,” was also in Shelton’s “White Men Can’t Jump” in his 23 acting credits and Wuhl has had a prolific and eclectic career from his first film (“The Hollywood Knights” – click here for my review) to the irreverence of the HBO specials called “Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl.”
A final observation: At the end, Nolte is walking away from the multi-million dollar program and onto the dark streets. He comes across a bunch of kids playing pickup hoops and likes the game of one. He saunters over, begins coaching the kid up. Before the credits tell you what happens to the main players, you can’t help but wonder what would happen today if a middle-aged white man walked onto a public basketball court and began talking to 10-year-olds?
“Blue Chips” was the 58th ranked film at the domestic box office in 1994 with $23 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. The No. 1 film was “Forrest Gump” with $329.6 million (and I still haven’t seen that one … I refuse to bow to social convention by watching it) and another good film near the top was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies” with Jamie Lee Curtis that came in third with $146.2 million (click here for my review).
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com and today also via Wiki):
- Directly from IMDb.com: “At the end both Neon and Butch McRae, played respectively by Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway leave school early to play pro ball. In real life both O’Neal and Hardaway left school early and played pro ball; ironically together early in their careers.”
- Here the bulk of the basketball players and coaches in the film (taken from the “Blue Chips” page on Wiki): Jim Boeheim, Kevin Garnett , Allan Houston, Dick Vitale, Nolan Richardson, George Lynch, Larry Bird, Travis Ford, Rick Fox, Calbert Cheaney, Matt Painter, Rex Walters, Rick Pitino, Bobby Hurley and Bob Knight.
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