The current golden age of sports documentaries hits a tin-plated patch this week with two flawed if interesting entries: “Bad Boys,” ESPN’s nostalgic “30 for 30” trip to hoops heaven, devoted to the bruising Detroit Pistons team of the 1980s; and “Arnie,” a three-part Golf Channel ode to Arnold Palmer, timed to piggyback on the network’s Masters coverage. Both have their moments, but “Bad Boys” gets a little too cute for its own good, while “Arnie” highlights the peril of having all the time in the world to devote to a single topic, even if that means slicing off into the trees.
“Bad Boys,” directed by Zak Levitt and produced by NBA Entertainment, certainly has juicy subject matter in the Pistons, who embraced a physical style of play and take-no-prisoners attitude that earned them hatred around the league (with several former opponents saying as much) but garnered adoration in the Motor City, especially when they finally pushed past the dreaded Celtics and Lakers to win back-to-back titles.
Still, Levitt makes several questionable choices, from having Detroit native Kid Rock as his tough-talkin’ narrator — a nod to the town, yes, but grating over the course of two hours — to introducing Pistons alums with staged posturing for the camera, which feels like something out of a weak reality show. (Enforcer Rick Mahorn, for example, is shown slamming two bricks together in slow motion.)
The first quarter of “Bad Boys” is also devoted, somewhat flatly, to the process of how management assembled the team, and while it’s interesting that center Bill Laimbeer grew up in privilege while star Isiah Thomas and , uh, international diplomat Dennis Rodman grappled with poverty, the preamble simply isn’t as compelling as either the hoops action or as seeing the larger-than-life stars reminisce about those years.
Much of the focus is on the way the Pistons’ hard fouls and wrestling style got into the heads of their opponents, including epic battles with the Lakers and Celtics (and the brouhaha triggered when Thomas and Rodman dismissed Larry Bird as overrated because he’s white), as well as the Chicago Bulls, adopting a punishing approach to defending Michael Jordan that came to be known as “the Jordan Rules.”
In short, there’s enough meat here that Levitt needn’t have dressed it up with all the sauce and cheese.
By contrast, “Arnie” is a classically dutiful documentary, featuring mellifluous narration by Tom Selleck and gauzy tributes to the man and his game. Yet expanding Palmer’s history to three installments — loosely devoted to his biography, major tournaments and his legacy — feels like a bit of largesse predicated more on availability than need.
Granted, the 84-year-old Palmer is such a singular figure in the golf world that there’s plenty of material, from how he wound up buying the Latrobe, Pa., golf club where his father couldn’t play to the tragic death of a college chum to how his career happened to take off at just the right time in terms of TV, media and sports-marketing opportunities.
For true golf aficionados, the clips of Palmer playing alone — from his more legendary shots to his collapse in a major tournament — will no doubt be enough to merit “Arnie” a place in their DVR queue; still, the unwelcome meaning this production gives to “long game” provides a demonstration that when searching for the green, being freed from the need to edit oneself can easily become its own kind of trap.