Apart from an inability to decide whether to be a sardonic character study or a satiric indictment of the sports-biz racket, Reginald Hudlin’s “The Great White Hype” is a tremendously effective expose of the behind-the-scenes intrigues of professional boxing.
One influence pulls in the direction of star player Samuel L. Jackson, who is terrifying and hilarious as an old-fashioned con artist, risen to a godly position in the high-stakes world of prizefighting. The other influence pulls toward a slam-bang ensemble piece, more on the order of Hudlin’s debut hip-hop comedy “House Party” or his comparatively lower-key “Boomerang,” with Eddie Murphy.
To Hudlin’s credit, “The Great White Hype” sustains both a hectic pace and a fairly clear vision, once it focuses on a vicious scam by Jackson’s character to re-integrate the ranks of heavyweight contenders - and thus expand and divide the audience along racial lines.
The screenplay represents the work of Ron Shelton, of “Cobb” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and Tony Hendra, an actor and National Lampoon alumnus. No telling precisely who contributed what, but an educated guess says Shelton gives the film its sports savvy and Hendra gives it its violent hilarity.
These elements might make for an uneasy mix in any sport other than boxing, which demands a messianic flair of its champions and their manipulators and allows fortunes to be made and lost with the vicious immediacy of a gunshot.
Small wonder that the Rev. Fred Sultan (Jackson) has made Las Vegas his home base. Jackson, a one-time evangelist turned fraud, has built an empire around a heavyweight champ (Damon Wayans) who seemingly can’t be defeated - but still his fortunes are dwindling.
So remembering how the champ’s lone defeat came at the hands of a white opponent in an amateur match, Sultan recruits that ex-boxer (Peter Berg) back into the ring and begins a campaign of exploitation grandiose enough to make Barnum seem a piker. The champ begins a decline into decadent living that leads to a surprising wrap-up in the prize ring.
Hudlin’s assured direction captures the frenzy of the fight scene with an unexpected straightforward clarity, telling much of the yarn through the jaundiced view of a TV journalist (Jeff Goldblum) who dogs Sultan as an adversary - up to a point. In a cast of frankly too many intriguing characters, standouts include Cheech Marin and Jon Lovitz as Sultan’s lackeys, Salli Richardson as no man’s lackey, and Michael Jace as a challenger desperate for a match.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Great White Hype” Locations: East Sprague, Newport and Couer d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Reginald Hudlin, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans Running time: 1:31 Rating: R