Early in Reginald Hudlin's "The Great White Hype," a sleazy boxing promoter and his minions are sitting around a television set in a Las Vegas suite watching a parade of heavyweight fighters being knocked out. The images are taken from videotape of actual fights, and, blown up for our benefit to the size of a movie screen, they are spectacularly brutal.
If Hudlin wanted to add his voice to the growing chorus calling for an end to professional boxing, he could not have found a more effective device.
But "The Great White Hype" doesn't have a serious bone in its body, fractured or otherwise, and the underlying context of the video clips scene, combined with the laughter of those watching, is even uglier than the KOs. The promoter and most of his entourage are black, and the fighters having their heads spun around are all white.
What the Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson), a silver-wigged version of Don King, is doing is looking for a credible white heavyweight to sign as the challenger to his undefeated black champion, James "The Grim Reaper" Roper (Damon Wayans). With gate and pay-per-view receipts on the wane, the division needs a shot in the arm, and Sultan plans to fill the syringe with the bile of racism.
What Hudlin ("House Party") is doing with his movie is pretty much the same thing. "The Great White Hype" plays like good-natured farce, harmless fun. Just a little interracial jesting, folks, chill. After all, Roper's eventual opponent, "Irish" Terry Conklin (Peter Berg), promises to give his end of the purse to the homeless and will punch anyone who even thinks he's a racist. Is this not a positive portrayal of a white person?
Well, no. Conklin, an ex-fighter turned screaming metal rocker, is giving his money away because he's got a cauliflower brain. He hasn't been in the ring in 10 years, since giving Roper his only defeat in an amateur fight, and he's too dim-witted to even know he's being used as a promotional prop. He thinks he can win the match, and by having him train hard while Roper plumps up on pastries and chain-smokes cigarettes, Hudlin wants the audience--at least, the whites in the audience--to think Conklin can win too.
Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump") wrote the original script for "The Great White Hype," and one can only imagine what happened to it after it left his hands. Shelton knows sports, and he knows how to create racial humor without being racist. The credits list Tony Hendra, a magazine humorist and bit actor, as Shelton's co-writer. Shelton doesn't have co-writers.
In any event, the result is a sorry enterprise, for all concerned, including the MGM Grand, which hosts the fight scenes, and such product tie-in companies as Adidas and B.U.M. Equipment.
Jackson attempts a spirited parody of Don King, but in a setting devoid of satirical bite, he's quickly reduced to cheap caricature. Wayans, stuck in the later scenes wearing a ridiculous prosthetic gut, looks as if he'd rather be in the ring with Mike Tyson than in this movie. And Jeff Goldblum, playing an anti-boxing crusader whose principles vanish with a lucrative job offer from Sultan, ought to be thrown into the ring with Tyson for taking the role. The best of the film's few laughs are provided by Jon Lovitz, who appears to be ad-libbing most of his lines as Sultan's toadying public relations man.
The Great White Hope, the label slapped on any young white fighter with an ounce of talent, is full of ugly implications. "The Great White Hype" realizes them.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: No mention of violence by the MPAA, but the use of video clips from actual heavyweight knockouts are brutal blown up on the big screen.
'The Great White Hype'
Samuel L. Jackson: Reverend Fred Sultan
Peter Berg: Terry Conklin
Damon Wayans: James Roper
Jeff Goldblum: Mitchell Kane
Jon Lovitz: Sol
An Atman Entertainment/Fred Berner Films Production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Reginald Hudlin. Producers Fred Berner, Joshua Donen. Screenplay Ron Shelton, Tony Hendra. Cinematography Ron Garcia. Production design Charles Rosen. Editor Earl Watson. Art Director Scott Ritenour. Set decorator Mary McIntosh. Music Marcus Miller. Costumes Ruth Carter. Running time: 90 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.