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.
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).
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.
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.