"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, November 20, 2009

DVD of the Week: Blue Chips

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In the 1970s, director William Friedkin was at the peak of his powers. The one-two punch of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) made him a force to be reckoned with. And then, he made Sorcerer (1977), a critical and commercial failure. His industry clout disappeared as fast as he had acquired it. Studios did not want to deal with his inflated ego and hard-headed pragmatism. Other than the excellent, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) Friedkin has made one forgettable film after another through the 1980s and 1990s. On paper, Blue Chips (1994) must have seemed like a good idea. Team up Friedkin with a Ron Shelton (responsible for one of the best sports films ever, Bull Durham) penned screenplay to create a hard-hitting expose on college basketball. So, what happened?

Just to let us know that he hasn’t completely sold out; Friedkin opens the film by having college basketball coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte) chew out a locker room full of players. He yells at them for a bit before walking out and then comes back in for more yelling. Repeat. It is a scene we’ve seen a million times before but this time it has a jarring effect because Friedkin drops us into the scene without any explanation, leaving it up to the audience to figure out what’s going on.

Bell is under a lot of pressure. Having experienced his first losing season, he’s still feeling the heat from accusations that his team shaved points off a game a few years ago. It continues to dogs him much to his chagrin. The powerful head of the alumni (played with oily, reptilian charm by consummate character actor, J.T. Walsh) dangles a carrot in front of Bell: use the power of the alumni coffers to recruit better players. Bell resists. He’s proud of the fact that he’s never resorted to illegal tactics that have tainted the game.

So, Coach Bell drives across the country trying to recruit players like a travelling salesman, sweet-talking families. But he soon finds that in order to get good players he has to do more than promise substantial courses and a vibrant campus life. Colleges not only have to convince the potential player but his family as well. The bottom line almost always comes down to this: what does the school have to offer them and their son? It’s not just a strong school, but, for some, the promise of a new house, a car, or a job. And so, Bell finally gives in and makes a deal with the film’s devil — Walsh’s slick, head of alumni, decked out in expensive suits and a buxom blond on each arm.

Why? College basketball represents big money through television revenue. A winning team draws bigger crowds and therefore more money. This makes the school’s alumni happy and willing to give more money to the school for certain programs, like the basketball team, thus ensuring future excellence in the sport. It is a cycle that feeds on itself. When one of these parts breaks down, the devastating ripples are felt throughout.

Nick Nolte is well cast as the intense, hard-drinking (what else?), hard-nosed coach who is feeling the pressure. The veteran actor has that natural, world-weariness that makes him perfect for the role and the rugged physicality that makes him believable as a big-time college basketball coach. Nolte not only talks the talk but he also walks the walk as evident in a basketball practice sequence where he actually conveys the impression that he knows what he’s doing. He backs this up with his on-court antics that are right out of games you’ve seen on T.V. Blue Chips also has the NBA pedigree with the likes of retired legends like Larry Bird and then-marquee players like Shaquille O’Neal and “Penny” Hardaway populating the movie.

Friedkin doesn’t seem all that interested in the basketball sequences, shooting them in the standard way that we have seen on T.V. 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 (1999). 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 conscience. This is when the film is at its strongest and most interesting.

Blue Chips is fine until its conclusion when it suddenly loses its freakin’ mind as 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 na├»ve, 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. Ultimately, Blue Chips is about an honest man who sells his soul, who gives into overwhelming pressure to get what he wants and who loses his way. Friedkin almost pulls it off and the sudden, pat ending makes one wonder if he 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.

Special Features:

Nothing. Considering what a good job Friedkin has been doing revisiting his old films and whole-heartedly supporting the DVD medium, one wonders if there was some friction between him and the studio on this film. Maybe they decided not to ask for his participation lest the notoriously vocal filmmaker sound off on any potential conflicts that arose during filming or how he views the film now.


  1. Great stuff here, J.D. I've always had a soft spot for this movie because I love college sports so much, and I thought it was great that Friedkin and Shelton were showing what recruiting meant to a school and how integral it is in succeeding in the NCAA...which of course lends itself to all kinds of shadiness involving boosters and special interests.

    Nolte was the perfect "Bobby Knight" for this film, and even though the end is rather formulaic and the basketball scenes are pretty "meh" I still find myself drawn to this film whenever I see it on TV.

    Friedkin is an interesting filmmaker. He had a hot run in the 70's as you point out, and a semi-cult hit with To Live and Die in L.A., but he never really picked himself up off the ground after Hollywood basically let him know in the 70's that he wasn't as important as he thought he was. I do think he got a bum deal with Sorcerer, which if I remember correctly is not what he wanted to call the movie.

    I did like his return to genre filmmaking with The Hunted which is a basic chase/Rambo type movie, but it's an excellent example of how visceral the action film can be without having to be CGI'd to death.

    But man, it is hard to put Jade out of your mind, isn't it? He's one of the many iconoclasts from the 70's that has taken a massive fall -- but I don't think he's done quite yet -- at least not like Cimino or some of his other contemporaries are.

  2. Somehow I knew Kevin would be the first person to comment on this (I actually got him this DVD for his birthday several years back).

    I have to agree with J.D. here, that the film just kind of peters out near the end. I actually think that bringing up ANY GIVEN SUNDAY feels appropriate, as both films have some good parts, but neither feels anything like a portrayal of the "real" sport.

    Nolte does a fine job of portraying what is essentially Bobby Knight (and much better than Brian Dennehy did in that ESPN biopic) and JT Walsh was one of the supremely great character actors -- he played smarmy SO well.

    As for the actual basketball players, it's funny that Matt Nover got the role of the Larry Bird-esque white player, just considering where his career went in comparison to Penny and Shaq. I'll guess that Christian Laettner wasn't available...

  3. Kevin J. Olson:

    Hey there! Yeah, there is a lot to like about this film, mostly Nick Nolte channeling Bobby Knight as you so correctly point out. But then, I've always had a soft spot for Nolte and will watch him in almost anything. And the teaming up of Friedkin and Shelton seems like a dream pairing but I really wonder if there was some studio interference, which would explain the schizo ending.

    As for Friedkin's later career. I dunno, I still can't behind JADE but I did thoroughly enjoy THE HUNTED which demonstrated Friedkin's knack for pure visual storytelling. You could almost mute the dialogue and just have the music and sound effects and still follow what was going on.

    You're right about SORCERER, which is very underappreciated and features a kick-ass score by Tangerine Dream. I think I read somewhere that Friedkin is itchin' to revisit this film on DVD and crank out a special edition. One can only hope.

    I agree with you that we shouldn't count Friedkin down and out yet. BUG was certainly a potent reminder that he's still got filmmaking chops to rival most folks out there.

    Troy Olson:

    Yeah, like ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, BLUE CHIPS is inconsistent but is still pretty interesting to watch... like there's a good film in there, somewhere, trying to get out.

    I have not seen Dennehy's take on Bobby Knight but I loved what Nolte did with the role. And what you can you say about J.T. Walsh that hasn't already been said? The man was just a great character actor that could turn in a good performance in the crappiest of films. I hope to talk about his wonderful turn in RED ROCK WEST soon.

    Thanks for stopping by, guys!

  4. That line about Jade was meant to be taken negatively, haha. And I feel stupid for forgetting Bug, one of the best modern horror films.

  5. I've got to see this now, J.D. This is one of Friedkin's that I've missed to this point. I have a real soft spot for SORCERER - I'm old enough to have seen this on its initial run (yes, another of those for me). The current DVD is a travesty compared to what I saw on the big screen way back when (not the least being the wrong aspect ratio). I only saw Wages of Fear after this. Both remain great films to me. If there's a petition that I can sign to show the studio/director that an SE of this film would have buyers, just point me to it. And count me as another who enjoys the hell out of The Hunted, too (though, friends don't seem to understand why). And BUG... the man's still got plenty of game. Another great review, J.D. Thanks for this.

  6. Hey there. Great writeup. I've only seen this movie once, but I really enjoyed it. I hope you've been having a fantastic weekend. Take care. Have a great week ahead. Cheers!

  7. Kevin J. Olson:

    Yeah, BUG is a keeper and one that stayed with me for days afterwards.


    I too saw WAGES OF FEAR after seeing SORCERER and love both. Would love to see Criterion get their hands on Friedkin's film and give it the deluxe treatment.

    Good to see another fan of THE HUNTED. Yeah, it's weird how nobody seems to really dig this film or talk about it. It just kinda disappeared from sight after a short theatrical run.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.


    Thanks, Keith! I had a pretty good weekend and hope you did too.

  8. Look what popped up today on Trailers From Hell, J.D.: Josh Olson giving some love and justice to Friedkin's SORCERER: