For just about an hour, "Blue Chips" seems to shape up as a smart, tough, cynical look at big-time college basketball as a hustling coach (played by Nick Nolte) tries to upgrade his faltering program by importing three blue-chip prospects.
But then it turns into an extended version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream," while Nolte, consumed with guilt about the under-the-table payments he's tacitly permitted, runs around clasping his hands against his ears and opening his mouth in primal agony like the twisted Munch-kin of the famous painting. Quick, get this guy some Mydol!
Nolte's astonishing naivete, when he discovers how corrupt is the milieu in which he's lived and flourished for his entire adult life, is the least credible aspect of the film. It turns the whole promising piece rancid, even as it yields, inevitably, the movie's campiest moment. This occurs when Nolte delivers a hysterical mea culpa before the astonished press and walks out. College coaches have an infinite capacity to astonish -- just last week, John Chaney of Temple went thermonuclear at another coach's press conference in a thoroughly appalling display of childishness -- but Nolte's self-immolation makes Chaney look like the soul of reason.
The movie, directed at a razzle-dazzle pace by William Friedkin (of "French Connection" fame), hails from a screenplay by Ron Shelton, who's found a niche exploring jock agonies and ecstasies, as in "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump." Shelton, an ex-minor league ball player (in the Orioles system, no less), has clear insight into the problematic psyches of beings who make their way in the world on the immensity of their strength and the delicacy of their hand-eye coordination. He treats them like men, not gods, a refreshing change in tone from the mythopoetics of industrial-strength sneaker ads.
But it's also typical of Shelton, unfortunately, that he tries to cram the whole world into two hours. His movies are too rich with incident and character; they're so overstuffed they seem to deconstruct under their own weight as plot twists and revelations pile up like mountains of potatoes at the team training table. That's a crucial flaw here.
Nolte's Pete Bell, of fictional Western University, is envisioned as a Dean Smith kind of guy. He's won two national championships, passel of conference titles and is so well-connected with the basketball establishment that he can pull up at a court in French Lick, Ind., and see a galumphing giant tossing in three-pointers under a whirlpool of blond hair, and sing out, "Hey, Larry," to which Larry Bird responds, "Hey, Petey." (In fact, the cameo-rich aspect of "Blue Chips" is its most enjoyable feature. Besides Bird, Rick Pitino, Bobby Knight, Bobby Hurley, Dick Vitale, Bob Cousy and others I may have missed appear.)
But Pete has just suffered his first sub-.500 season and the pressures on him are mounting. He's got to bring off a recruiting coup to get back to the highest levels of the game, and the movie astutely demonstrates the con-man tilt to coaching, as Pete has to charm the kids he needs. Quickly connecting with two leading high school players (well-played by Orlando Magic rookie Anfernee Hardaway and former Indiana great Matt Nover), he realizes that they've already been sucked up into corruption: Each expects a payoff of a sort and, reluctantly, Pete agrees.
But then, almost by accident, he discovers the man-child who will lead him to the promised land. This is Shaquille O'Neal, as one Neon Boudeaux, who's as big as he is fast and fast as he is big. But if the movie means to play Neon's warrior's purity off against the mendacity of the other two, it doesn't. In fact, Neon is quickly absorbed into team culture; the uniqueness of his background -- after high school, he went into the Army where he grew eight inches, and now that he's finally stopped growing he's reacquired his coordination -- comes to be meaningless.
Friedkin has his best luck with his game sequences. He avoids the temptation of slow motion, which has become so tedious in sports films, and concentrates on the speed and power of the game. He loves to watch Shaq take off like a Titan 3 and decelerate through the atmosphere as he delivers another dunk with the authority of a nuclear strike. And the production values were high enough to fill a real field house with real people to capture the frenzy and the buzz of reality.
But meanwhile, the plot is bottoming out in soap opera cliches. Pete is running up against the swinish arrogance of a rich alum played by J.T. Walsh, another stroke that rings false: Coaches love fat-cat alumna, who build them gyms and weight rooms. Worse, Walsh is so over the top and gooey with evil he's a cartoon: he's Snidely Whiplash.
The movie ultimately comes to focus entirely too much on Pete's anguish, perhaps its least interesting motif, while even losing interest in O'Neal, who has great movie presence even as he has great court presence. "Blue Chips" comes to feel like a segment of "ESPN Sports Center" directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Nick Nolte and Shaquille O'Neal
Directed by William Friedkin
Released by Paramount