The venerable all-American pastimes of greed, cheating and winning at all costs take it on the chin in “Blue Chips,” a deafness-inducing but otherwise ho-hum would-be expose of shady recruiting practices by college basketball programs. From a sports point of view, this fast-moving production has gone to great lengths to achieve an impeccable verisimilitude, as the cast is loaded with real-life on-and-off-the-court hoop personalities. But Paramount had better hope the avid basketball public will ante up to see their heroes in sufficient numbers to at least give this a good couple of weekends, since other viewers are likely to be underwhelmed.
The combination of Nick Nolte’s ranting, agitated performance as a beleaguered coach, director William Friedkin’s compulsive style and the frantic pace of the basketball action itself provides an overdose of stimulation that is more numbing than exciting. But the main problem is that the film, which was written by the very sports-savvy Ron Shelton 12 years ago, offers audiences no rooting interest, no way to cozy up to any of the characters.
Because everyone is, to varying degrees, complicit in a corrupt system of illegal payoffs, one couldn’t care less what happens to them and their team. Point of the picture, other than to so bravely condemn illegal or at least unethical behavior, is hard to pin down.
Opening scene has Nolte bawling out his players after a game for their godawful play. A winner of two national championships with Western U., Nolte is on the verge of his first losing season and knows he’s got to perform some kind of miracle to right his sinking ship and save his job.
The only way he can do this is through recruiting, so as soon as the season dribbles to its desultory end, he hits the road to find those elusive low-profile greats who aren’t already heading for the top Eastern schools. (Basketball purists will object that recruiting generally takes place a year ahead, not the summer before a student’s freshman year.)
Amusingly getting there one step ahead of competing coaches (including such recognizable faces as Jerry Tarkanian and Jim Boeheim), Nolte comes up with three winners: a Chicago sharpshooter played by Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway; a towering farmboy (Matt Nover) from Larry Bird’s hometown of French Lick, Ind.; and, especially, Shaquille O’Neal, playing a ne’er-do-well of monster talents who has been languishing unnoticed in the Army, Mexico and the Louisiana backwater.
Knowing he’ll have a dynamite team with these three, Nolte believes he’s convinced them to attend WU, but then come the demands: Hardaway’s mother Alfre Woodard requests a new home and a fancy office, and Nover asks for $ 30,000, with a new tractor for his dad tossed in. The big innocent, O’Neal, doesn’t want anything, but they throw a Lexus at him anyway.
With a cloud of alleged point-shaving by his team some years back hovering over him, Nolte wants no part of any of this, but wealthy, overbearing alumni organization leader J.T. Walsh forces the issue and takes care of things himself. So with the team all set, it’s only a question of how Nolte deals with it, and for how long.
“Blue Chips” holds some interest for the look it affords at real players, the way they are accommodated regardless of academic abilities and the way others behave in relation to them. It also provides some incidental pleasures, such as former Celtic great Bob Cousy, in to play WU’s athletic director, casually making free throw after free throw during a chat with Nolte; Larry Bird caught shooting baskets on home turf; any number of college and pro players seen up close in practice and in games, and Shaq dunking repeatedly.
But there’s also Nolte’s totally boring relationship with ex-wife Mary McDonnell, who acts as his conscience’s sounding board and agrees to tutor O’Neal; a curious narrative structure that offers little dramatic build-up and ends on a very abrupt note; and a vagueness about business-as-usual in recruiting practices.
With the exception of the pretty cool young players, performances, led by Nolte’s, are full-throttle. Pro athletes involved may not be great actors, but they’re generally relaxed and likable. To say that Shaquille O’Neal has presence would be the understatement of the year: His smile and manner are ingratiating, and main problem with his appearance here is that it’s hard to frame him in the same shot with the real thesps.
Soundtrack, which is peppered with many pop tunes from assorted eras, has the decibel level of a Who concert. Lensing is distractingly lusterless, and Friedkin has shot much of the basketball action in so tight that it sometimes comes off as fuzzy and a bit herky-jerky.