Appealing performers and sporadic moments of dead-on satiric hilarity only partly compensate for the general tepidness of The Great White Hype, which depicts the comic consequences of a boxing promotion aimed at giving white fans one of their own to root for in a heavyweight championship. Uneven scripting and unfocused direction create the impressin of a TV sketch stretched to feature length.
Since co-scripter Ron Shelton’s screenplays for Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Cobb conveyed a devotee’s avid knowledge and love of sports, The Great White Hype will surely be noted for lacking the same tone of fascination and respect. Script treats boxing mainly as a pretext for showbiz sharks to make money off of dimwitted gladiators.
Set in Las Vegas, tale centers on the larger-than-life and sartorially excessive Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson), a high-spirited and gleefully devious boxing impresario who is dismayed at the meager profits brought in by his current champ (Damon Wayans). The obvious remedy is to rustle up a Caucasian contender, Terry Conklin (Peter Berg), now a luggish singer for a heavy metal band
Despite his gruff appearance, Terry turns out to be a sweet-tempered sort who agrees to box only when assured that the fight will be used in the campaign to help the homeless. Convincing the rest of the world that Terry and the match are legit is a trickier task, one that Sultan divvies up among helpers that include his publicist (Jon Lovitz), partner (Corbin Bernsen) and lawyer (Rocky Carroll), as well as Terry’s trainer (John Rhys-Davies) and the boxing association’s crooked president (Cheech Marin).
While the plot strands come together in predictable fashion, there are fun moments along the way, thanks largely to Jackson, who excludes a droll and charismatic joviality even though his character isn’t taken much beyond the one-joke stage. Imported from TV’s Chicago Hope, Berg likewise contributes a genial presence.