Owen Gleiberman
March 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

Blue Chips

Current Status
In Season
Mary McDonnell, Nick Nolte, Shaquille O'Neal, Ed O'Neill, J.T. Walsh, Alfre Woodard, Robert Wuhl
William Friedkin
Ron Shelton
Drama, Sports

We gave it a C+

Nick Nolte puts more energy into his performance as Pete Bell, the embattled college-basketball-coach hero of BLUE CHIPS, than some actors put into their entire careers. He opens the film with a vintage Bobby Knight harangue: Standing in the locker room of the Western University Dolphins, Pete screams at his players, slams a water cooler on the floor, then screams some more. A few minutes later he’s on the court, screaming at a referee, his nightly tantrum reaching its climax as he boots a basketball across the arena. When Nolte goes into high-ballistic mode, he isn’t like any other performer. The neck muscles may be straining, the vocal cords stretched to a high-octave rasp, but beneath all that actorly dudgeon you can always detect his piercing desire to be understood; it’s there in the pleading eyes, < the rapid-fire passion of his word volleys. Nolte puts on quite a show in Blue Chips, a jauntily formulaic ''expose'' of corruption in college sports, and it's easy to see why: He's carrying the whole film on his big, saggy shoulders. Pete is about to preside over his first losing season with the Dolphins, a team he had previously coached to two national championships. What's really eating him, though, is the reason he's losing. For years, all the other teams have recruited top high school players by making under-the-table financial payoffs to the athletes and their families. Pete, however, runs a clean program. He's an anachronism, the last honest man in town. When he reluctantly enters the high-stakes recruitment sweepstakes, the decision starts to chip away at his pleasure in the game. Pressured to assemble a winning team by everyone from a sleazy alumnus (J.T. Walsh) to Western's honorable athletic director (Bob Cousy), Pete agrees to buy several players, all of whom are portrayed by real college and professional basketball stars. Butch (Anfernee ''Penny'' Hardaway), from inner- city Chicago, arrives at Western after the school agrees to provide his mother (Alfre Woodard) with a job and a new home. Ricky (Matt Nover), an Indiana farm boy, gets a shiny new tractor for his father. Then there's Neon (Shaquille O'Neal), a strapping, unschooled natural from New Orleans-on the court, he's like a flying refrigerator-who turns down the offer of a Lexus and agrees to join the Dolphins anyway. Of course, to anyone with a passing knowledge of college athletics, it's hardly news that star players are recruited with hefty perks. The folly of Blue Chips is that the film makes this greased-palm corruption seem an even bigger sin than it is. (It's like a political drama made by someone who is shocked, shocked at the sleaze of campaign financing.) Nolte's heartfelt performance lets us see that Pete is fighting for an ideal: basketball as grace, as honest sweat, as life itself. Yet we also need to see how the payoffs damage the players themselves. And the script, written 12 years ago by Ron Shelton (White Men Can't Jump), is so schematic that the individual Dolphins never come alive as characters. Even Shaq's smiling grandeur is just a grace note. The veteran director William Friedkin (The French Connection) gives the basketball sequences a kinetic spontaneity. Yet the games are also rather anonymous. The best scene in the movie is a quiet one: When Pete learns that a ( star player may have been involved in a point-shaving scam, he and his assistant coaches run a cassette of the game in question. It's fascinating to watch them analyze the contest, but what puts the moment over is the look on Nolte's face -a trepidation verging on fear-as he watches his protege dance around the court, secretly pulling punches. Perks are one thing, but here the glory of basketball seems truly compromised, and the movie, for a moment, lives up to all its righteous huffing and puffing.

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