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'Blue Chips'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 19, 1994


William Friedkin
Shaquille O'Neal;
Nick Nolte
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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When Shaquille O'Neal, the 21-year-old, seven-foot center, actor, rapper and, now, movie star, takes the ball to the hole in William Friedkin's mostly joyless new basketball film, "Blue Chips," it seems that the sport has been transformed into a mythic battle of the titans.

Unfortunately, though, the filmmakers don't get the ball into the Shaq-man's hands enough -- both literally and figuratively -- to make this personable giant's screen debut memorable. With Ron Shelton, the creator of "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump," functioning as the film's writer and executive producer, there was hope that "Blue Chips" might be a cut above the usual "Hoosiers"-brand sports saga. But after "White Men Can't Jump" -- perhaps the definitive basketball movie -- Shelton doesn't seem to have much more to say about the sport. And with Friedkin's slickly proficient but impersonal direction, the picture amounts to little more than an uninspired, almost perfunctory exercise in "big game" manipulations.

The ostensible subject here is the big business of college athletics, and, just as "The Program" tried to do with college football, the film's purpose is to expose the corruption behind the scenes of so-called amateur athletics that have transformed the sport into a desperate money grab. But, like "The Program," this strident, unconvincing bit of movie muckraking uses our national sports mania to decoy us into sitting through a dreary lecture about ethics and moral corner-cutting.

What's most surprising here is that the assembled talent -- from the worlds of basketball and movies -- is so impressive and, still, the work is so tired. As the coach who exchanges his soul for a winning program, Nick Nolte struts and bellows in a desperate attempt to bring his character to life, and though he works up quite a lather, all he gets for the effort is sweat stains.

In a world where the schools that sign the top players stand to make millions (mostly in television revenues), it seems unfair that the players should get nothing for their efforts. The film argues this point, but by portraying these (mostly black) kids as grasping moral infants who nonchalantly break the rules by asking for everything from tractors to houses to cold cash, "Blue Chips" oversimplifies a complex issue.

For a movie that preaches a return to honesty and straight-dealing, "Blue Chips" pays more attention to the arcane details of the game than it does to moral fine points. With the exception of the Shaq-man, only one of the real-life coaches and stars -- including Anfernee Hardaway, Bobby Hurley and Bullets' star Calbert Cheaney -- manages to make much of an impression and that is Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy, who just to prove what a snap this acting stuff is, plays one whole scene while casually sinking an impressive string of baskets from the free-throw line. It's a virtuoso moment, but nothing more than that -- a moment in a movie that leaves its game in the locker room.

Blue Chips is rated PG-13.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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