New-Release Tuesday: Blue Chips

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Blue Chips is a train wreck of a movie. That’s why I know that everyone should love this 1994 NCAA parable. Mystifyingly, everyone did not love this film, and it has not become the cult classic that it should have.

Nick Nolte plays Pete Bell, basketball coach at fictional perennial powerhouse Western University. The program has fallen on hard times, though, and Bell is winding up his first losing season in a long, long time.

Pete is a very bad loser. Fortunately, I guess, Pete has a very ethical athletic director named Vic (played by basketball legend Bob Cousy)… totally undermined by an ethically-challenged Boosters crony named “Happy” (portrayed by the late slimeball specialist J.T. Walsh). Everyone around Pete gives him the utmost support, including his wife (Mary McDonnell), and yet can’t see the trainwreck coming as Hap gets cosier and cosier with Pete and pulls the necessary strings for Pete to land two key recruits for the upcoming season.

Pete cheats.

But oh! how he cheats. His two blue-chippers are played by Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal, so the basketball itself is a load of fun. As Coach Bell makes his run at another conference championship, we are treated to loads of basketball loosely scripted by sports-film legend Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, etc.) as other stars wander through the film: Bobby Knight, Rick Pitino, George Raveling, even Larry Bird! And because this film is about the moral mess that big-time sports has become, you can see why this all-star roster signed on for the ride.

Nick Nolte, who is himself quite a mess, plays Pete Bell with f-bomb spouting aplomb in just about the messiest fashion. Many critics felt that Bell was such a mess that he becomes completely unappealing; but I disagree. Part of Nolte’s appeal has always been his messiness, and this is, I think, the ideal and career-defining role for Nolte… even if he does seem an awful lot like a lightly-fictionalized Bobby Knight.

The whole over-wrought drama is helmed by William Friedkin, who himself knew a thing or two about over-the-top excess (The Exorcist, Sorcerer, The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A.). Can it be any surprise that this whole thing comes crashing down around Pete Bell’s ears? How do you think a poor loser like Pete would handle that scenario? Wanna see?

So this is a trainwreck that was designed to be trainwreck. What better spectacle for rubber-necking lookie-loos…

Blue Chips is now included with your Amazon Prime subscription. You can also stream at YouTube.