March 31, 2010

Underrated MOTM: Blue Chips (1994)

"Is there a national championship collegiate athletic program anywhere in the country that can truthfully say all of its recruiting was done entirely within the official guidelines? Just asking."

That's Roger Ebert asking, in his review of Blue Chips, a rhetorical question that most fans of college athletics would rather not consider. Seems like a month doesn't go by without ESPN reporting on alleged recruiting violations at a given school, but it's never front page news and it's always gone after a day. Rules are broken, wrists are slapped, and everyone - fans, coaches, athletes, administrators - moves on to the next season.

This doesn't explain how a movie like Blue Chips was ever made, but it does explain why a movie like Blue Chips (or its cousin, The Program, or its successor, He Got Game) is never discussed, especially around this time of year, when universities spend (and earn) millions of dollars on advertising during March Madness coverage. Commentators talk about "how much these kids love basketball" and "what it means to Coach so-and-so to get to this point in his career", but never could a word be uttered about the money spent and favors called in to create all of those One Shining Moments.

It sounds like I'm particularly cynical about college athletics, but I'm not. For four years I worked for and traveled with various collegiate sports at a half-dozen Division I universities, and I never saw anything that made me raise my eyebrows (of course, I was in the locker rooms and on the sidelines, completely removed from recruiting visits). Blue Chips came out right at the height of my athletic fandom (middle school), and if anything it made me more interested in college sports, not less. There was a lively, exciting glamour on display, as if while watching the movie, we too were getting schmoozed by Coach Pete Bell and Western University. More importantly, the movie featured the iconic basketball coaches and young players of the day (Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal - whose initial scene is one of my favorite in any sports movie), lending it an immediate realism that has rarely if ever been since matched.

In the years since Blue Chips was released, my understanding of college athletics has matured and, consequently, decreased. I honestly have a hard time filling out my March Madness brackets with anything other than wild upsets or smart favorites (Kentucky this year? Maybe not); it's to the point where I enjoy the competition of the brackets as much if not more so than the competition in the games themselves. I don't really care who wins, or what the wins mean for the coaches or the schools. Unlike the Olympics (because I still believe many Olympic athletes make major sacrifices), I've accepted that college sports are a business and, as with any business, there will be the temptation of corruption. It's not like college sports "betrayed" me; I just lost interest in who was doing the best business - legally or illegally.

And maybe the ambivalence of Blue Chips toward recruiting schemes is why I remember it fondly. It wasn't made to teach viewers an ethics lesson or campaign for tougher NCAA recruitment regulations. It was made to entertain, to feature some winking familiar faces and show us that they were in on the secret, too. If I could find the scene with J.T. Walsh spouting off about the realities of the business I would share it, but the best I can do is the film's opening scene, which precedes the basketball-kicking incident and includes some of Nolte's funniest and most outrageous statements:

Further reading: Bill Simmons' insightful review of Blue Chips

UPDATE: Here's the J.T. Walsh clip I referred to (click through to watch the entire movie if you like):


  1. This is an interesting film that I enjoyed but felt was ultimately a flawed effort. 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. This I didn't mind so much because 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 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. The pat ending makes one wonder if Friedkin 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.

  2. Matt Anderson would disagree with you if he were still alive... I remember seeing it in the theater with him and Frales somewhere around 1994. Right after we took a limo to the Pizza Hut buffet for selling magazines.

  3. Brilliant comment, J.D., and here I was thinking nobody cared a whit about this movie!

    We'll split on a few things here...
    -Basketball scenes: I actually thought these were pretty engrossing, with multiple points of view and consistent energy, not a lot of slow motion and gratuitous shots of the clock. This scene in particular I thought was well done, especially that subtle zoom toward the end when Bell is jawing with the ref before he boots the ball.

    Off-court vs. on-court: Absolutely, the off-court stuff is by far the most compelling, and to contradict my last statement I guess I would say that in general Friedkin didn't need as much on-court action to prove anything other than the fact that he got real basketball players to play in this movie.

    -Post-conference: Yes, it was a melodramatic ending, but for a film like this and at that time it was about the only way it could have ended. You're probably right that the studio may have played a hand there, but if you look at other screenplays by Ron Shelton (White Men Can't Jump, Bull Durham), they wrap up pretty tidily as well.

    Sauer, how could anyone not think back fondly on an experience that included a limo and a Pizza Hut buffet? I remember Anderson loving this movie; seems like we would quote it all the time.

    "First Baptist or Southern Baptist?"

    "...First Baptist, of course."

    "Well, thank the good Lord, Pete. Cuz we don't think too much about Southern Baptists around here, if you catch my drift."

  4. Hmm... I will admit that's been awhile since I've watched this film so perhaps I need to revisit it as you make a good point about the dynamic quality of the on-court action.

    I will say that I dig this film if only for Nick Nolte channeling Bobby Knight (isn't he?) performance. I've always been a fan of Nolte's and so this film has a soft spot in my heart because of that.

  5. To be fair it's been many years since I've seen this movie, too, so I might be playing up the quality based on nostalgia. Watching these clips again makes me think it really is a great little movie, though.

    I guess Nolte as Knight was the accepted identity, which made the fact that Knight is actually in this movie all the funnier.

    Since you mention it I think it's a great performance by Nolte, too. He doesn't take it TOO seriously and plays up the grumpiness to great effect.

  6. God, I miss J.T. Walsh. And how freakin' perfect is it that the "You might also like" features another one of your Underrated movies...and it's Breakdown, co-starring none other than the man himself.

    I've always liked Blue Chips but not loved it. If it's on TV (and it is...often), there's a good chance I'm parking my butt down and watching it (or rather, setting the remote down, as I'm likely already parked). Anyway, it's a fun movie that's probably more real of a college hoops movie than just about any other out there, and the Nolte=Knight comparison is so razor thin it ought not to be there.

    Great selection for this. And decent "acting" by Shaq, probably the only time you can say that.

  7. Man, I need to sign up for your cable package because I never find this movie on TV. I almost found myself rewatching the whole thing on YouTube as I was writing this post.

    And J.T. Walsh, boy don't think I didn't realize he was in Breakdown, too. The guys career is littered with underrated movies - and performances, of course. Gosh he doesn't get much sleazier than he is in the scene above, though. Classic Walsh.

  8. I guess I should clarify - I used to see it on all of the time. Though I'm pretty sure HBO still airs it with some regularity. Or perhaps I'm going crazy.

    And yea, Walsh is at his best in the scene you showed.

    Totally unrelated (and we might have even discussed this previously), but have you seen Red Rock West aka The Nic Cage Movie I Actually Like and Recommend to People? Cage, Hopper, Walsh and Lara Flynn Boyle in a westerny film noir from John Dahl. Oh, and Dwight Yoakham in a tiny part, too. Great pulpy stuff.

  9. I have not seen and we have not discussed, but I have to see The Nic Cage Movie Fletch Actually Likes and Recommends to People. Plus, Dwight Yoakam is a bit of an underrated actor himself.


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