September 23, 2005
Starring: Nick Nolte, Mary McDonnell, Ed O’Neill, J.T. Walsh, Alfre Woodard, Shaquille O’Neal, “Penny” Hardaway, Matt Nover, Robert Wuhl, Bob Cousy, Cylk Cozart, Anthony C. Hall, Lou Gossett Jr.,
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In the ‘70s, director William Friedkin was at the peak of his powers. The one-two punch of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) made him a force to be reckoned with. And then, he made Sorcerer (1977), a critical and commercial failure. His industry clout disappeared as fast as he had acquired it. Studios did not want to deal with his inflated ego and hard-headed pragmatism. Other than the excellent, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) Friedkin has made one forgettable film after another through the ‘80s and ‘90s. On paper, Blue Chips (1994) must have seemed like a good idea. Team up Friedkin with a Ron Shelton (responsible for one of the best sports films ever, Bull Durham) penned screenplay to create a hard-hitting expose on college basketball. So, what happened?
Just to let us know that he hasn’t completely sold out; Friedkin opens the film by having college basketball coach Pete Bell (Nolte) chew out a locker room full of players. He yells at them for a bit before walking out and then comes back in for more yelling. Repeat. It is a scene we’ve seen a million times before but this time it has a jarring effect because Friedkin drops us into the scene without any explanation, leaving it up to the audience to figure out what’s going on.
Bell is under a lot of pressure. Having experienced his first losing season, he’s still feeling the heat from accusations that his team shaved points off a game a few years ago. It continues to dogs him much to his chagrin. The powerful head of the alumni (played with oily, reptilian charm by consummate character actor, Walsh) dangles a carrot in front of Bell: use the power of the alumni coffers to recruit better players. Bell resists. He’s proud that he’s never resorted to illegal tactics that he feels has tainted the game.
So, Coach Bell drives across the country trying to recruit players like a travelling salesman sweet-talking families. But he soon finds that in order to get good players he has to do more than promise substantial courses and a vibrant campus life. Colleges not only have to convince the potential player but his family as well. The bottom line almost always comes down to this: what does the school have to offer them and their son? It’s not just a strong school, but, for some, the promise of a new house, a car, or a job. And so, Bell finally gives in and makes a deal with the film’s devil—Walsh’s slick, head of alumni, decked out in expensive suits and a buxom blond on each arm.
Why? College basketball represents big money through TV revenue. A winning team draws bigger crowds and therefore more money. This makes the school’s alumni happy and willing to give more money to the school for certain programs, like the basketball team, thus insuring future excellence in the sport. It is a cycle that feeds on itself. When one of these parts breaks down, the devastating ripples are felt throughout.
Nick Nolte is well cast as the intense, hard-drinking, hard-nosed coach who is feeling the pressure. The veteran actor has that natural, world-weariness that makes him perfect for the role and the rugged physicality that makes him believable as a big-time college basketball coach. Nolte not only talks the talk but he also walks the walk as evident in a basketball practice sequence where he actually conveys the impression that he knows what he’s doing. He backs this up with his on-court antics that are right out of games you’ve seen on TV. Blue Chips also has the NBA pedigree with the likes of retired legends like Larry Bird and then marquee players like Shaq and “Penny” Hardaway populating the movie.
Friedkin doesn’t seem all that interested in the basketball sequences, shooting them in the standard way that we have seen on TV instead of trying something different, like employing his trademark you-are-there cinema verite which would have captured the intensity of a live game, much as Oliver Stone did in Any Given Sunday (1999). Friedkin seems more interested in the off-court mechanics: the wheeling and dealing needed to get raw talent from high schools to their college without a rival school stealing/enticing them away and Bell wrestling with his conscious. This is when the film is at its strongest and most interesting.
Blue Chips is fine until its conclusion when it suddenly loses its freakin’ mind when a guilt-ridden Bell tries to redeem himself at a post-game press conference. It just doesn’t seem believable—especially when this scene is followed by a staggeringly naïve, it-starts-with-our-kids message that is way too preachy. It betrays what the film has been saying up to this point: that no one seems to play for the love of the game anymore. Everybody wants something – money, a house, a car, or a job. Ultimately, Blue Chips is about an honest man who sells his soul, who gives into overwhelming pressure to get what he wants and who loses his way. Friedkin almost pulls it off and the sudden, pat ending makes one wonder if he originally intended a more downbeat ending only for the timid studio to impose a more positive conclusion. In doing so, they’ve alienated the audience who was with them up until that point.
Nothing. Considering what a good job Friedkin has been doing revisiting his old films and whole-heartedly supporting the DVD medium, one wonders if there was some friction between him and the studio on this movie. Maybe they decided not to ask for his participation lest the notoriously vocal filmmaker sound off on any potential conflicts that arose during filming or how he views the film now.