I’m about to donate some money to the remove my foot from your ass foundation!
Year Released : 1996
Director : Reginald Hudlin
Cast : Samuel L Jackson, Damon Wayans, Jeff Goldblum, Peter Berg, Corbin Bernsen, Jon Lovitz, Cheech Marin, John Rhys-Davis, Jamie Foxx and Salli Richardson-Whitfield
With there being current investigations into alleged corruption in FIFA, it seems appropriate to write a review for a film about corruption in boxing. I’ve been debating for a while whether to review The Great White Hype as it did modestly well at the box office, taking just over £8 million worldwide, and it has a brilliant ensemble cast with some of the biggest name actors of the 1990s.
What swayed me however was seeing on IMDB that it had barely over 7,000 votes, a relatively low number, and the Facebook fan page didn’t seem to have a lot of likes either, so that’s what swayed me to talk about what is one of my favourite sports films. The Great White Hype, much like A Night at the Roxbury, might not be a film that I watch on a regular basis, but it is still one of my favourite films from the 1990s and although it doesn’t have a high score on IMDB, I think it is stylish and a well told story about how easily corruptible sport can be if you have the right contacts.
I’m going to also put this disclaimer before I start writing, I don’t like boxing and I’m not very keen on movies about the sport. I’ll grant you that there aren’t that many boxing movies, but other than this I can’t think of another boxing film that I actually like, and yes, I do include the Rocky franchise in that statement. Rocky, for me, is one of the most overrated franchises in movie history because you know that regardless of how difficult the opponent may seem after the first film, Rocky will always win somehow, and that’s why I don’t like them, they’re predictable.
I would say that most sports movies are predictable as it’s very rare that the person or the sports person that the film is following don’t win in the end. They usually find a way, regardless of how ridiculous that way is, and sports films are rarely executed in a believable way.
But anyway, I digress slightly….
Rev Sultan (Jackson) is a boxing promoter and his main fighter, James Roper (Wayans) is the undisputed champion. Roper has been on top for a while but is regularly refusing to fight the rightful number one contender. Roper wins fight after fight and it isn’t long before the money from each fight starts to go down at an alarming rate and in a meeting with his team, Rev comes to the realisation that people are tired of watching black guys fighting black guys and that the only way to get people’s attention is to have a match between two fighters of a different race, but with no non-black fighters in the Top 10, there aren’t many options available.
After some research, it is discovered that only one man has ever defeated Roper, a former amateur boxer that defeated him convincingly before quitting the sport. That man is Terry Conklin (Berg). Conklin now tours with his rock and roll band and is initially uninterested in fighting, that is until Rev tempts him with the money that the fight will generate and the promise that it can be donated to charity.
Meanwhile, Rev successfully converts a political activist named Mitchell Kane (Goldblum) into joining his team and together, along with the rest of the team, they successfully manage to get Conklin inserted into the Top 10, that despite the fact he has never competed in a professional match, thus granting him a title match. The team start hyping Conklin up to be more than he actually is, convincing everyone that he has a chance of winning, including Conklin himself. Roper refuses to take him seriously and puts on a lot of weight, but can Conklin pull off the biggest shock in boxing history?
So where does the hype come from and does it work?
The hype comes from the fact that they manage to convince the nation that Conklin is on the same level in terms of ability as Roper, that despite the several years of being nowhere near competitive boxing. You as an audience member genuinely believe that Conklin can win and Roper’s weight gain aids in that. Even Rev himself starts believing the hype and that Conklin can overcome the odds and defeat Roper. *spoiler* The real genius of it is that when the fight does start and Roper realises that there is a chance that he will be embarrassed, he starts to take the fight seriously and quickly dispatches Conklin, making you realise all along that Conklin’s hype was all style and no substance. *end spoiler*
Now, this film doesn’t have a high rating on IMDB and I must admit that I am struggling to figure out why. I think it might be because this is different to most sports films. Most sports films are built around an optimistic style and you ultimately know the team is going to win, and it’s very rare that the team doesn’t. In many ways I think that this film is very similar to another sports movie, the American football masterpiece that is “Any Given Sunday”, also featuring Jamie Foxx. They are presented in a similar style and I get the feeling that if you like that film then you’ll like this, because even most of the way through that you’re not sure if the team will end up winning as Foxx plays a character who severely disrupts the team.
I’ve rewatched this film twice over the last few days to try and catch what people don’t like and I can’t put my finger on it being anything other than the non-optimistic view of things. Don’t get me wrong, this film isn’t a negative film whatsoever, but it isn’t really an underdog story (the first Rocky film), it isn’t really about a team that was awful that is now unbeatable because of one or two training sessions with someone who hasn’t played that sport in more than twenty years (The Mighty Ducks) and isn’t about someone who is having to deal with the career coming to an end (The Wrestler). It’s just not a typical sports film and I think that people just don’t like that about it.
For me though it is that difference that makes it enjoyable. Although it’s similar to “Any Given Sunday” in many ways, in others it is one of the most unique films set in the sports world that I have seen in a long time.
Jeff Goldblum steals the show for me. I have previously wrote about how he is a brilliant actor, that despite being regularly type cast as the nerdy scientist, but in this film he gets to play someone who is exceptionally multi-dimensional and he seems to relish that. His character develops exceptionally well and Goldblum goes from a fighter for justice, to a puppet and then finally a man who tries to create his own empire, right under Rev’s nose. He plays a character that is, for lack of better words, as far from a nerd as you can get and it’s almost like it’s not a Jeff Goldblum style character.
Infact, very few actors play a character that you would normally associate with them. Wayans plays an arrogant, I’m better than everyone type character, whereas he’s normally, or was at least at the time, known for comedic, socially awkward characters, such as in films such as “Major Payne” and “Blankman”. Samuel L Jackson has generally been known throughout his career as someone who takes care of business on his own, often with the use of swear words, and whilst the latter very much stays in this film, the character is actually quite cowardly, letting everyone do his fighting for him.
I won’t claim to have seen most actors in this film enough to make a fair comparison with their usual roles. Without looking at his filmography, the only films I’ve ever seen Corbin Bernsen in the Major League franchise, I’ve only ever seen two or three others with Jamie Foxx in and this could be applied for most actors. The only actor who fills like they are continuing their typecast nature is Jon Lovitz, who although in a more serious role than normal, seems to play a very familiar character to in most films.
Away from the acting, the film is presented in a very stylish way and opens with a scene that sets the tone quite well. The music is perfect for the type of film and is well used throughout. This starts right from the first scene as two scorpions fight, with one winning convincingly in the end, only to then be ran over by a passing car as a modern (well, 1990s modern) take on the song “Sweet Dreams” plays on the radio. In many ways this symbolises everything in this film as you can fight as much as you want, but ultimately you have no control over anything.
I do find it strange that a lot of sites describe this film as a comedy because it isn’t. It’s not intended to be a comedy and isn’t presented as one. There are one or two amusing moments, like there are in most films, but this is not a comedy. This, for me, is a well constructed drama, full of manipulation, backstabbing and how the media can be used to control the masses.
One of the cleverest sports films I’ve seen in my 30 years and in many ways the actually match that eventually happens takes a back seat. There are only two boxing matches in the entire film and *spoiler* neither lasts for more than two minutes of the film and the way that the fight between Conklin and Roper ends just shows that the fighting has taking a massive back seat to the money, with Conklin never, ever likely to post a realistic challenge to Roper. *spoiler ends*
The film isn’t even really a sports film, it’s more about how easily people can be corrupted and twisted into thinking whatever they’re told to believe. The way that the public gets behind Conklin without ever having seen him fight just shows how easily people will believe hype.
Watch this film, you will love it.