The Great White Hype

Official Poster

Release Date: May 3, 1996

Genre: Comedy, Sport

Director: Reginald Hudlin   

Writers: Tonya Hendra, Ron Shelton

Starring: Damon Wayans, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, Peter Berg, Corbin Bernsen, Jon Lovitz

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

Hello readers! Welcome to another review on “Guilty Pleasure Cinema!” This week’s review is a real treat. The movie I’m presenting is one I’ve been wanting to post for over a year. Every time I get around to start working on it, I would get delayed by life….you know how that goes. I’m on vacation from my regular day job as I’m typing up this review and I told myself, “No more excuses, get it done!” For this week’s review I decided to do a sporting themed movie, which I don’t believe I’ve done yet (feel free to call me out if I do). It’s a Boxing themed movie that mixers comedy and satire into one overlooked film that I completely forgot about until it was available to watch on HBO Go, the original HBO streaming service before they changed to HBO Max. Featuring a ensemble cast of recognizable faces including those who would become future stars in their own right, this week we’re looking at 1996’s The Great White Hype!

The Great White Hype stars Samuel L. Jackson as Boxing promoter Reverend Fred Sultan, who represents the undefeated Heavyweight Champion James “Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans). After Roper’s latest victory, Sultan reveals that the fight was a financial flop and interest in the sport is declining. He theorizes that audiences are sick and tired of watching only black boxers beat each other up. Sultan comes up with a way to reenergize the sport and generate a huge payday for everyone by having Roper go up against a white contender citing the 1982 fight between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney. After some research, they track down the only white man whom had defeated Roper at the Amateur level, Terry Conklin (Peter Berg). Conklin lives in Cleveland and is now in a rock band. After being approached at an after party at one of his gigs, Sultan offers Conklin a chance to return to the ring for a hefty sum. Conklin refuses stating he’s more interested in his band and fighting social issues than fighting people. Sultan uses his charm and manipulation to convince Conklin that he could use the money to eradicate homelessness which is Conklin’s main priority. Conklin agrees. Sultan uses his power and influence to get Conklin into the Top Ten rankings and the fight between him and Roper is on with Conklin training hard and Roper hardly training.

Samuel L. Jackson’s Fred Sultan Introducing Peter Berg’s Terry Conklin to the Press

In addition to the names above the film also stars Jeff Goldblum as investigative television journalist Mitchell Kane who has gathered evidence to show how unethical and corrupt the Sultan is only to sell out and join Sultan’s team, Corbin Bernsen as Peter Prince, owner of the MGM Grand, Jon Lovitz as Sol, who is Sultan’s PR guy, Cheech Marin as Julio Escobar, commissioner of the Nevada Boxing Committee, Michael Jace as Marvin Shabazz, who is the number one contender to face Roper only to be passed over for Conklin and Jamie Foxx in an early role as Hassan El Ruk’n, Shabazz’s manager. The film features guest appearances from longtime Boxing writer Bert Sugar, Brian Setzer doing a musical number and Method Man.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, The Great White Hype is a satirical Boxing film taking influence from not only Rocky but the title is based on the Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney fight of 1982 where Cooney is dubbed, “The Great White Hope.” That term has been used by Boxing to recognize up and coming white heavyweight Boxers who have the potential of being great. One name that sticks out to me is the late Tommy Morrison, who was the last known great white heavyweight boxer from the 90s until his career shockingly ended due to him testing positive for HIV (one of Morrison’s fights is shown in the film when Sultan’s crew is researching white Boxers).  

Jeff Goldblum as Investigative Journalist Mitchell Kane

The Great White Hype is a simple story with very little twists and shocking moments. It’s about one match, the Main Event. Within that one match, director Reginald Hudlin showcases the political nature of the Boxing world. Each character declares a form of morality which only a mask for them wanting to achieve their hidden goals dealing with power, money, influence, and greed all together. Jackon’s Sultan is like Don King, who is only looking after his interests and raking as much money for him from his prized fighter. Wayans’ Roper is yearning for the respect and the cash he desperately wants, being sick and tired of having his fight winnings in the form of one new Rolls Royce after another. Berg’s Conklin has his ethics and principles contradicted through being in the media spotlight and being adored by many despite the fact no one knows who he is and Goldblum’s Kane sells out his journalistic integrity to be part of a bigger click. The casting is perfectly fitted to the characters. My favorite performances were Jackson, Wayans, Berg, Goldblum and Jon Lovitz. Jackson’s loud and eccentricity glows through the film. Wayans his hilarious as Roper who gets cocky and lazy with his training that he shows up to the fight overweight complete with a huge belly. Berg’s Conklin is dimwitted who you feel during the movie that his heart is not wanting to get back into the ring. Goldblum is Goldblum and Lovitz is Lovitz who provides some great liners with the zest and snap that Lovitz is known for. I do however feel that there should have been more screen time with Michael Jace and Jamie Foxx. They only appear during each press conference pleading their case to get a title shot and one scene where they confront Sultan and his posse in his own penthouse.

I enjoyed the pacing of the film and gave some great insights as to how Roper and Conklin were preparing for their fight. Conklin is training hard but is also spending a lot of time in photo shoots and interviews where he gets contradicted on comments he was saying. Wayans’ training routine (or lack thereof) were some great laugh out loud moments. The dialogue has its cheesy moments most notably from the supporting cast. I especially enjoyed the commentary from Boxing writer Bert Sugar and the announcers of the fight who are in disbelief over both fighters.

The Main Event

Boxing is one of the few sports that seems to translate well in a film adaptation and The Great White Hype is one of those films. It is a funny and sharp satirical film that will keep you laughing through it’s near 90-minute runtime. I’m surprised this film doesn’t get mentioned when people talk about their favorite Sports films or Boxing films. Yes, it doesn’t take itself seriously like a Rocky or Raging Bull, but it’s a fresh funny take on the sport and everything that goes on behind the scenes. If you’re lucky to find it on a streaming site or if you have to pay to rent it, then do it. The Great White Hype is another in a long line of underrated films to come from the 90s.

TRIVIA (Per IMDB)

  • Reverend Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson) greets a man with shoulder length black hair and a black suit, with “Hey Vincent, Vincent, where’s Jules man?”, a reference to Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction (1994).
  • Sol (Jon Lovitz) mentions, when watching the film of Tommy Morrison being knocked out, that he is “John Wayne’s cousin”. Morrison was John Wayne’s (real name Marion Michael Morrison) grand-nephew.
  • Many members of the cast made either guest appearances or had recurring roles on the FOX television series Roc (1991), which featured Rocky Carroll as a regular cast member. This includes Samuel L. Jackson, Corbin Bernsen, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Jamie Foxx, Albert Hall, Lamont Johnson, Art Evans, and Rick Scarry.
  • Ron Shelton has expressed distaste for the film, because his script was completely revised by comedian Tony Hendra.
  • Such was Ron Shelton’s dislike of this movie that he has said, “I tried to get my name taken off it, because the film they made was not the script I wrote. I find it a horrible movie.”
  • Jason Flemyng auditioned for the role of Conklin. Asked to strip to the waist and shadowbox, he sneezed because of the cold and smeared the snot over himself to keep in character, much to the cameraman’s disgust.

AUDIO CLIPS

I’m An Artist
I’ll Spank You
That’s The Third I Love You
I Drive A Brougham
You’ve Got A Whole Bunch of Guns
Who Beat Roper As An Amateur?
I Don’t Need My Ego Fed
I Give My Money To The Homeless
The Announcement
Kid’s Not Even A Professional
Cannot Make Caviar Out of Fish Eggs
I Can Beat Conklin and My Meat At The Same Time
How Do You Like Las Vegas?
Donations
Roper At The Weigh In
Never Met A Meal He Didn’t Like

Pawn Sacrifice

Official Poster

Release Date: September 25, 2015  

Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport  

Director: Edward Zwick  

Writers: Steven Knight (Screenplay), Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson and Steven Knight (Story)

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Live Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

For this review of Guilty Pleasure Cinema I decided to go with a genre that I’ve not done a review for. I went with a Biopic film. I enjoy Biopic films as they give you a cinematic view of a person or a historical event. I went with an individual biopic. This biopic is based on a person that is arguably the best at what he did. What he did was play Chess. He not only became the first (and only) American to win the World Championship, but he unlocked centuries of secrets that were contained in the game. I’m referring to Bobby Fischer.

I’ve been an amateur Chess player for over a year and I’ve been fascinated with Bobby Fischer as an individual. I’ve read many books on him as well as the award-winning HBO documentary Bobby Fischer Against The World. He is a man shrouded in mystery and lived in his own world which consists of 64 squares and 16 pieces. At age fifteen he became the youngest United States Chess Champion. By the time he was twenty-nine, he won the 1972 World Championship against Soviet Champion Boris Spassky. The match is hailed as the only “physical” battle of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The match soared Chess into mainstream popularity. Fischer became a rock star. Right as he won the title, he went into seclusion never playing another professional game until twenty years later. In 2015, a biopic about Fischer and the ’72 Championship was released in limited theaters called Pawn Sacrifice!

Pawn Sacrifice chronicles Fischer’s interest in Chess as a young boy to winning his first United States Chess Championship to his preparation for the World Championship against Spassky. His frosty relationship with his mother, his early signs of paranoia and his all-out desire to be the best in the world weave into the plot.  Directed by Edward Zwick whose credits include numerous critically acclaimed films including Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, and The Last Samurai the cast includes Tobey Magurie as Bobby Fischer, Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky, Peter Sarsgaard as Father Bill Lombardy, Fischer’s assistant and backup player and Michael Stuhlbarg as Paul Marshall who becomes Fischer’s lawyer.

Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer in “Pawn Sacrifice”

Let me go ahead and get the negatives out of this movie first before going into the reasons why I enjoy this film. It’s a flawed historical account of Fischer’s rise to Chess immortality. There are a lot of inaccuracies during the timeline of events. I won’t document all the inaccuracies I found out due to not giving out spoilers (although I warn about potential spoilers). I understand that biopic films can’t reveal a full narrative unless you plan on having a four plus hour movie. I think the film trims the fat in the wrong places.

Instead what Pawn Sacrifice does is gives you a psychological story. Throughout the film you watch Fischer slowly deteriorate mentally from his constant studying of the game, to his heightened senses which breaks his concentration to his ever growing distrust for those around him to tearing up telephones and breaking any equipment he thinks the Russians can use to spy on him. Yes, the film focuses on Fischer, but it also focuses on his opponent Spassky. Both are considered the best Chess players by their respective homelands. Both are used as pawns to their countries to show off the superiority of each ideological concept. Each play their own psychological games. For Fischer its constant demands on the rules, setting and prize money. For Spassky it’s doing things like standing up and slowly pacing causing noises to interrupt Fischer’s train of thought.  There are moments in the film where Spassky is suspicious of his assistant’s motives and reasonings. All Spassky wants to do is play Fischer in a battle of wits and skill.

As far as the story, the film starts out with Bobby as a young boy garnering an interest in Chess to his quick rise to being the youngest Chess Grandmaster in history to his legendary match with Boris Spassky for the World Championship. The third act of the movie is the dramatization of the Championship match. The original match consisted of twenty four games with Fischer needing to get to twelve and half points to win the title. What director Edward Zwick does is not bore you with highlights from all twenty four games, but rather shows you the important matches in the game along with some of the issues that arise during the match.

Peter Sarsgaard and Tobey Maguire

The cast of the movie is small which is fine since it centralizes on the two figures. Tobey Maguire is not the ideal actor to play Fischer, but I think he did a good job with the performance. Maguire is short is height compared to the real Bobby Fischer who was tall and lanky. I give the makeup department an ‘A+’ for getting Fischer’s hair and facial features. Maguire gets Fischer’s unique walk down to a science. The voice was hard to nail down since Fischer spoke with a soft Brooklyn accent, but it came out in many scenes where Fischer would be fired up about the Russian’s tactics in Chess and complaints about competitive disadvantage and some tense moments between him, Bill Lombardi and Paul Marshall.  Maguire commanded the screen throughout the film with his tactics which were humorous at times including waiting to the last second to make his first move against a Russian opponent and stopping the clock with one second to spare.

While Tobey Maguire may not have the full look of Bobby Fischer, the opposite could be said of Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky. Schreiber was the perfect choice for Spassky. If you put a photo of Schreiber and Spassky together you wouldn’t be able to notice the difference. Schreiber speaks Russian throughout the entire movie with the exception of a few tiny moments where he speaks English. Schreiber portrays Spassky like a quiet rock star making entrances with his sunglasses on surrounded by his entourage. Even though he comes from the Soviet Union, we see moments in the film where Spassky is enjoying American culture from listening to music, to playing pinball to taking a swim in the ocean. This does not please his manager who is trying to keep a tight leash on him throughout the movie.

Finally the two remaining cast members, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg play their parts respectively. Sarsgaard plays Bill Lombardi, Fischer’s coach and second and Stuhlbarg plays Paul Marshall, Fischer’s pro bono lawyer who has his work cut out trying to satisfy all of Bobby’s demands. Lombardi is essentially the middle man between Fischer and Marshall. He does his best to keep both on even footing. Sarsgaard plays Lombardi as calm, wise and observational as he can tell right away that Fischer is falling into the same madness that has taken so many Chess prodigies in the past. Stuhlbarg portrays Marshall as somewhat of a weasel as he goes behind Bobby’s back to stay in touch with his sister, Joan who expresses the same concerns that Lombardi has and being a go to contact for people high up in the United States government who have taken a strong interest in Fischer and would like to exploit him to be a shining symbol of American freedom and idealism.

Liev Schreiber and Tobey Maguire

As far as the technical aspects of the film, the visual locations are beautiful and breathtaking as you see the sunny beaches of California to the cold and vast landscape of Iceland with New York being sandwiched in between the two. The film is very bright due to the digital film that was used although it makes up by setting the right lighting and mood during some of Fischer’s darkest moments including his vast breakdown in between games of the World Chess Championship. The music heightens the scenes throughout the movie and add a touch of classic rock and roll music during numerous scenes of Fischer’s dominance of the game when he destroys his opponents left and right.

Pawn Sacrifice is the first film I can think of that focuses on a person from the Chess world. I’ve heard of the movie “Searching For Bobby Fischer,” but that film was never about Fischer. It was a catchy title. If you’re not familiar with Bobby Fischer and would like to learn more about him I would recommend watching this movie. In addition I would watch the documentary I mentioned earlier Bobby Fischer Against The World and read numerous books about him. Fischer is an interesting character study. Who knows? Maybe it will spark your interest in Chess if you haven’t been interested in it already.

TRIVIA

  • A “Pawn Sacrifice” is a move in chess in which a player sacrifices his pawn for a soft advantage such as more space for his pieces or positioning them in better squares in order to develop an attack subsequently. It aims to create unbalanced positions so if the player who is committed to the pawn sacrifice did not capitalize on his temporary advantage, he would lose the game at the end due to his inferiority in material.
  • The narrator of the conspiracy theory audio that Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) is listening to is Liev Schreiber, who plays Boris Spassky.
  • In preparing to write the movie’s script, screenwriter Steven Knight read many of the books that have been written about Bobby Fischer and the “Match of the Century”, as well as speaking with people who knew him. “The most useful material was archival footage of him being interviewed,” said screenwriter Knight. “Bobby spoke and moved oddly, and to see that was helpful. If you noticed him walking down the street, you’d think, ‘there is a curious person’. He might have ended up just another homeless person, but he was just so good at chess that he was saved by it. And, of course, cursed by it as well.”
  • The screenplay for this film was featured in the 2009 Blacklist, a list of the most liked unmade scripts of the year.
  • Of the movie’s title, the film’s director Edward Zwick said: “You have Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon calling Bobby Fischer; you have [Leonid] Brezhnev [Leonid Brezhnev] and the KGB agents following Boris Spassky. Both of these men were pawns of their nations”.
  • Bobby Fischer passed away at the age of 64, which is coincidentally the same number of fields on a chessboard.
  • David Fincher was linked to the project for several years.

AUDIO CLIPS

Beaten Everyone He’s Played
Shall We Call It A Draw
Shut Up Size 12
I’m All About The Game
Criticizing A Priest
Speed Chess
All I Want Is Some Quiet
I Screw People
Passed Having Sex For This
Third Best Player In The World
Chess Needs Two Players
Russian Spy Techniques
Cameras Making Too Much Noise
You Don’t Look Well
Like Morphy