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The Chips Are Down

Instead of calling his latest sports screenplay Blue Chips, Ron Shelton (writer/director of Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump) should've titled it Recruiting Violations: College Basketball 101. Not even gritty director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) can make this offering more than a survey course.

The ever-busy Nick Nolte plays a stalwart, aggressive head coach of former NCAA champions who've slipped from the rankings. Coach, who yells at his players because he loves them, decides to get new recruits. One, Shaquille O'Neal (from the NBA's Orlando Magic), is so awe-inspiring that kids rightly dash to the gymnasium shack in which he plays. Journeying to Chicago's famed St. Joseph's prep school and to legendary Larry Bird's hometown of French Lick, Indiana, Coach impresses two other blue-chippers (to the chagrin of Jerry Tarkanian and the other NCAA coaches who appear in cameos), but there's a problem here: the players and/or their families want cash, cars, houses, tractors.

To Shelton and Friedkin's credit, the movie makes honest Coach face his heart of darkness. But after being tempted by a win-at-any-cost alum booster (J.T. Walsh), he and the movie turn preachy. "Somewhere in America there's a ten-year-old kid," Coach begins at the climactic soapbox press conference that's so drawn-out and obvious you'll call time out.

Blue Chips brings up point-shaving, educational inequities (O'Neal amusingly criticizes a lecture on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for being culturally biased) and revenue considerations. But it doesn't blend them into the fabric as it does the three-man weaves shown in sweaty practice. The games themselves waver: they're played by former college stars and first-year pros, so the atmospherics feel right, but for all the ref-berating and play-calling, the camera follows the ball too closely. The action is more frenetic than exciting. Mikes on rims gild the lily by making O'Neal's dunks thunder.

Full of accomplished performers, including Alfre Woodard as a no-nonsense mom and Mary McDonnell as Coach's ex-wife/best friend, the movie has fun playing cast-the-basketball-guy (including Rockets Richard Petruska and Eric Riley). Super scout Marty Blake, Boston Celtic great Bob Cousy, intense Bobby Knight and polished Rick Pitino show up. These compelling coaches deserve movie treatment. In the meantime, turn on Dick Vitale on game day.

-- Peter Szatmary

Blue Chips.
Written by Ron Shelton. Directed by William Friedkin. Starring Nick Nolte, Mary McDonnell, J.T. Walsh, Shaquille O'Neal.

Rated PG-13.
108 minutes.

 
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