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‘Blue Chips’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 18, 1994


William Friedkin
Nick Nolte;
Shaquille O'Neal;
J.T. Walsh;
Anfernee Hardaway;
Alfre Woodard;
Matt Nover;
Mary McDonnell
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"Blue Chips," a movie about underhanded deals to secure college basketball players, is almost shut out by its own cliches. If it wasn't for some exciting roundball action, Shaquille O'Neal's hulking-dunking presence and a wonderfully guttural performance from coach Nick Nolte, you'd slither off the bench asleep. Producer/scriptwriter Ron Shelton penned this 12 years ago, well before his "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump." He got better with age.

The worst thing about "Chips" -- and a big worst thing it is -- is the plodding, moronic, connect-the-dots morality. You know who's bad (alumni sleazeball J. T. Walsh and the star players he buys cars for). You know what's bad (that old American story about graft-sponsored victory-mongering). You know everything, thanks to scoreboard-sized no-nos and yes-yesses. Should Western U. Dolphins head coach Nolte buy talent with illegal free cars, cash payments and anything the potential stars' wheeler-dealer parents demand? It's a fascinating subject, which gets America where it lives, but I've seen subtler semiology on "Sesame Street."

The best stuff is where director William Friedkin (he of "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection") pumps up the action. Not only is 7-foot-4 super-giant Shaq amazing to watch as he soars like a Jumbo Jet to catch passes and slam-dunk them into two-point oblivion, he's surprisingly lovable as a performer. (I had to close my eyes to write that.)

Friedkin also fills the court with real b-ballers, instead of thespian poseurs. There are NBA rookies from the Kings, Nets, Bullets, Rockets, Lakers, Knicks and 76ers. Thanks to these guys, snappy editing and close-in camerawork, you feel the physicality, the sweaty contact and the grace.

Flint-faced veteran Nolte makes you almost forget the hackneyed plotting around him. In the opening scene, in a locker room tongue-lashing of his losing team, he is a magnificent, vein-popping, apoplectic riot. After blasting the cowering players, he storms out. The players murmur in shock at the outburst.

Nolte bursts in again to give them some more. He walks out and, as the players react to this second assault, he's back again. "I can't tell you how sick I am of basketball today!" he shrieks. By the time he's finally done, the players's clothes are strewn all over the place, chairs are upset and a water cooler lies on its side.

But this kind of excitement is soon stifled: It's time for the story. Nolte, with two national championships and eight conference titles under his belt, is at the end of his first losing season. Western U. doesn't do what it really has to -- the palm spreading, the promises -- to draw the super talent, the so-called blue chips.

Along comes alumni-club antichrist Walsh, who ought to carry a villain placard around his neck in every movie he's in. Walsh tells Nolte How Things Are Really Done. Nolte resists. But when he tries to recruit aspiring, avaricious blue chippers Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and Matt Nover, he learns the score.

Nolte's moral wanderings and return to heroic integrity are about as belabored as you can imagine. There is a great finale, as he pulls out his final trump card -- with a slew of journalists taking notes. And just before that, there's a thrilling bout with the Indiana Hoosiers (with coach Bobby Knight gamely playing himself).

But these highlights don't disguise the heavy-handed nonsense you've had to swallow all along. Nor can they make up for a gag-me allegorical final scene between Nolte and a preteen kid player that -- in poetic terms -- should be considered a personal foul.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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