Great White Hype, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Not since Robert Altman's The Player has a film been this relentless in its satirical attack. The Great White Hype takes the boxing industry and rips it open, displaying the rotting, putrid innards for all to see. There are times when this movie is so vicious that it ceases to be funny. While The Great White Hype has its share of comical, occasionally-hilarious moments, don't expect a non-stop laughfest on par with This Is Spinal Tap.

Co-writer Ron Shelton is no stranger to sports movies -- he scripted five before this (three of which he directed): The Best of Times, Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, Cobb, and Blue Chips. Shelton is familiar with the behind-the-scenes machinations, and this knowlege is crucial to the film's success. The Great White Hype works primarily because its excesses aren't far removed from reality. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the movie is the recognition of how true-to-life the most outlandish and absurd aspects are.

James "the Grim Reaper" Roper (Damon Wayans) is the most devastating heavyweight champion since Mike Tyson. With his 38-0 record, he's a force to be reckoned with. Or is he? Is Roper undefeated because he's so good, or because his flamboyant, publicity-loving manager, Reverend Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson), only lets him fight stiffs. That's the question Roper's would-be-rival-in-the-ring, Marvin Shabazz (Michael Jace) would like answered. He can't get a match with Roper because Sultan won't commit to a date.

The pay-per-view revenue for Roper's last fight is down -- way down. The money isn't rolling in the way it used to, and Sultan knows the reason. People have lost interest in the heavyweight championship, he claims, because they're tired of watching black men beat up each other. They need a white hero -- someone with a "clean-cut", "all-American" image. And, Sultan adds, if he doesn't exist, "I'll create him." When one of Sultan's assistants uncovers the name of Terry Conklin (Peter Berg), the only man ever to knock out Roper (albeit in an amateur bout more than 10 years ago), Sultan has his man. With his entourage in tow, the promoter pays a visit to Cleveland, where Conklin is acting as lead singer for a bad heavy metal band. After making one $10 million offer to the ex-Golden Glove Champ, Sultan has his "great white hope" -- Irish Terry Conklin (who's not Irish), defender of the homeless (he gives large donations to that cause) and challenger for the heavyweight championship.

The secondary plot of The Great White Hype involves the rise of Mitchell Kane (Jeff Goldblum) from tabloid reporter and self-styled "freelance crusader" to a major force in the boxing promotion business. Kane, who starts out trying to expose Sultan as a fraud, ends up becoming another cog in the Don King-like promoter's machinery. Jon Lovitz, Cheech Marin, Salli Richardson, and Corbin Bernsen all have small roles as Sultan's flunkies. And, although Jackson's performance is the one to watch, everyone else is more than capable, especially Damon Wayans, who finds the right balance between seriousness and comedy.

Ably directed by Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang), The Great White Hype never lets up with its pummeling of the boxing industry and its image-obsessed attitudes. The film also presents a timely message about how racial divisiveness can be exploited in sports (especially boxing) to bring in big bucks. Shelton and Tony Hendra's script sparkles with nasty, incisive wit -- their pens were sharpened to finely-honed points before they began this skewering. And the boxing match at the end is actually suspenseful, because we don't know how things are going to turn out -- there's potential for more ridicule no matter who wins or loses.

There are occasions when The Great White Hype goes too far, and rarer instances when it doesn't go far enough, but those moments are only apparent upon close examination. This movie isn't the unqualified success that The Player or Spinal Tap were -- both of those films had more artistry than is evident here -- but The Great White Hype is still the kind of first-rate satire that would make Jonathan Swift proud. By the time this hyper-energetic, unapologetically politically incorrect motion picture draws to a close, boxing has been dealt a knock-out punch.

Great White Hype, The (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 1996-05-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1