Blue Chips (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

An underdog team gets an infusion of outside talent (either a player or a coach) and goes from the bottom to the top, winning the championship in a game whose result is never in doubt. This is the plot of dozens of sports-related motion pictures, including Hoosiers, one of the best basketball films. It is not, however, the plot of Blue Chips, a rare example of an entry into this genre that attempts to be honest and unique.

Coach Pete Bell of Western University (Nick Nolte) is going through a nightmare season. After a decade of winning, his team is about to finish with a sub-.500 record for the first time in his tenure. It's not that his players don't have heart, but the Western University Dolphins are thin on talent, so getting several blue chip prospects becomes the driving motivation for the off-season. Coach Bell singles out three (Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and Matt Nover). They all like Western U, but two are demanding a little something "under the table", which goes against Coach Bell's principles. Nevertheless, facing another losing season, he is forced to consider that cars and cash might not be the worst price to pay.

Perhaps the best decision made by writer Ron Shelton and director William Friedkin was to focus on the off-court politics of recruiting rather than on the team's wins and losses. In the end, that's what makes Blue Chips different from so many other, similarly-marketed movies. There is a big showdown at the end, but the basketball game becomes peripheral to a more important crisis. It is a catalyst, not a conclusion.

Those who expect Shaquille O'Neal to dominate the film will be disappointed. While the NBA star has his share of scenes, the acting required is limited (and mercifully within his capabilities -- this is nothing like Dan Marino's movie debut in Ace Ventura). From start to finish, this is Nick Nolte's picture, with his energetic performance approaching the point of frenzy. It doesn't take long to discern that Coach Bell is modeled after Indiana's Bobby Knight (who, along with numerous other basketball luminaries, makes an appearance).

The central moral dilemma facing Coach Bell is whether or not to pay off players with alumni money. While this goes against everything he believes in, it becomes apparent that it may not be possible to field a winning team without breaking the rules. There's a good dose of reality in this story, even if the script occasionally becomes too preachy. The end sequences especially could have been toned down.

Blue Chips is peppered with subtle humor and in jokes. One prime example is former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian (who was constantly accused of recruiting violations by the NCAA) expressing genuine concern about whether a prospective college player has the grades to stay academically eligible. The film's conclusion also features a droll parody of the "what happened to our characters after this movie ends..." messages that reality-based dramas often scroll across the screen.

As for the actual basketball sequences, they're exceptionally well-done, accurately capturing the feel of a college game. The presence of several real-life stars elevates the level of on-court intensity. Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway are electric with the ball in their hands.

Blue Chips will obviously appeal more to basketball aficionados than to those who are indifferent to the sport. Despite an advertising blitz of slam-dunks and crisp passes, this film has a story to tell that doesn't require much on-court savvy. The theme, which involves facing the consequences of one's actions, is universal, even if the attraction of "the Shaq" isn't.

Blue Chips (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 1994-02-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1