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Boxing Movie Review: ‘The Great White Hype’ has its moments, but doesn’t fully deliver on its potential

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The 1996 satire takes aim at a failing boxing business and the schemes its money men are willing to back.

20th Century Fox

With the boxing world still on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, we at Bad Left Hook continue to look for various ways to keep the show going without any actual fights to cover at the moment. We’ve got ourselves a little old Movie Club, a good old fashioned gathering of folks to talk about movies; being specific for this case, boxing movies.

It’s been a while here, a few weeks since the last BLH Movie Club update, and that’s because next on my list of first 10 to watch or re-watch for this project was 1980’s Raging Bull, a Scorsese classic starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in arguably the finest performances of either man’s career. But Raging Bull is a lot to take in, particularly when you know the weight of what is coming. And I just couldn’t get myself in the mood for it again, despite the fact it’s a brilliant film, Scorsese is my favorite director, Pacino and De Niro both among my favorite actors, etc. There’s a lot of gloom in the world right now and Raging Bull is a heavy watch.

So instead, fuck it, I’ll get to Raging Bull later when the mood for that is maybe a little better some random day. Instead we turn to the 1996 comedy The Great White Hype, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, and Damon Wayans among what is really a very talented, fairly loaded cast overall. I hadn’t seen this movie in years, and I didn’t remember it being particularly good, but let’s get it.

Note: There are spoilers for plot points and whatnot in the review. This is a 24-year-old movie and all, and if you want to avoid all spoilers but still get quick thoughts, you can skip down to the bottom for the rating and the bits after that. Otherwise you might be better off watching the movie and then coming back to read the review. Plus then you can discuss it with us!

The Great White Hype (1996)

91 minutes. Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Screenplay by Tony Hendra and Ron Shelton. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans, Peter Berg, Jon Lovitz, Corbin Bernsen, Cheech Marin, John Rhys-Davies, Salli Richardson, Jamie Foxx, Rocky Carroll, and Michael Jace.

This movie opens with incredible subtlety, as we see two scorpions engaged in a mating battle in the desert, then a big car runs them over. Every actor’s name hits the screen with punch sound effects.

Heavyweight champion James “The Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans) is first seen in the ring, pummeling a challenger. Ringside, a self-styled “freelance crusader” journalist named Mitchell Kane (Jeff Goldblum) tries to begin his investigative case against promoter Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson).

The movie isn’t explicitly about Don King and Mike Tyson, but up front, that’s the selling point. Right down to having once stomped a man (nearly to death in Sultan’s case, to death in King’s), Sultan is meant to be a thinly-veiled, comical version of King. Roper is Tyson at first, with a sort of scrambled post-fight interview that clearly is meant to recall Tyson, but this winds up being an odd choice compared to the rest of the movie, where Roper really has very little in common with Tyson.

That first fight ends with Roper pummeling his foe with 16 undefended, totally clean shots while the referee (real boxing ref Richard Steele) just stands there, like, “Yes, this is fine,” until the beaten man finally drops to the canvas to be counted out.

The post-fight press conference shows us the real top contender: Marvin Shabazz (Michael Jace), managed by Hassan El Ruk’n (Jamie Foxx). They demand their shot, but are put off.

Corbin Bernsen plays a Vegas hotel owner unhappy with the gate, as several thousand tickets were comped. Pay-per-view, we’re told, was down 50 percent from the previous heavyweight title fight. Everyone puts on smiles at first when the champ arrives at the party, but he quickly sniffs out that he’s being screwed on his promised payday yet again.

Sultan and the others, including Sol (Jon Lovitz), manipulate the situation into a $40 million promise for Roper’s next fight. Roper wants Shabazz, but Sultan proposes that the public has seen enough of black fighters facing one another. They need a white contender, he says. Roper points out that there aren’t any, and says this isn’t about race but boxing, which Sultan laughs at, reminding everyone that the highest-grossing fight of all time was Larry Holmes vs Gerry Cooney, whose jab, Sultan says, “couldn’t break wind.”

This is a similar set-up to the story in Rocky, where champion Apollo Creed loses his opponent at the last second and has to quickly find a replacement. None of the top contenders will do it on short notice, so Creed comes up with the idea to offer a local, white challenger in Philadelphia. And thus we get Rocky Balboa.

Here, the search takes place at the home of sanctioning body official Julio (Cheech Marin), who is also on Sultan’s payroll, though not officially, of course. They watch tape of various white heavyweights being demolished. Julio’s assistant Bambi (Salli Richardson) was hired to be eye candy, but she has a legitimate idea: a white guy who handed Roper his only amateur loss, Terry Conklin. Conklin never did turn pro, but Sultan likes the idea.

Before it can be explored further, Shabazz and Hassan bust in with guns, accompanied by two others. They are quickly stared down by Sultan’s armed security force, and leave happy enough to be promised a shot later.

Terry Conklin (Peter Berg) is found in Cleveland, fronting a rock band called Massive Head Wound, who to the movie’s credit sound exactly like a thousand local mid-90s bands trying to be Nirvana. Frankly, they could’ve easily been signed to Interscope or something if the right person saw them at this point in time. He scream-sings a song about not needing his ego fed, but backstage the reality is completely opposite, as he is presented a handful of different girls by a roadie until finally settling on one he likes.

Conklin, a Buddhist, becomes convinced by Sultan to take a $10 million offer, which he ostensibly will donate to deal with what Terry repeatedly calls “the homelessness situation.” After Sultan bribes Julio to rank Conklin No. 8 with the sanctioning body, Conklin gets his hair cut and a cleaned up look. He’s announced at the press conference as “Irish” Terry Conklin.

“I’m not Irish,” Conklin tells Sol at the side of the stage.

“It’s boxing,” Sol replies. “It just means you’re white.”

Johnny Windsor (Jonathan Rhys-Davies) is assigned as Conklin’s trainer. A veteran of the fight game, his plan is to motivate Terry with hate, and Windsor has plenty of it to share. Off to the side, Sultan tells Windsor to make Conklin look credible.

“I can make him credible until he gets in the ring,” Windsor offers.

Fred nods along. “Once he’s in the ring,” he says, “he’s dog meat.”

With the press lambasting the fight as a sham and a fraud, PR man Sol is at odds with Sultan. Sol simply can’t sell this matchup to the sports media; it’s just too far this time. The crusader Mitchell Kane sends over a racy photo of Sultan intending to blackmail him into a meeting with no cameras, just to talk.

Kane does record a potential goodbye before going in. He presents more photos to Sultan, who soaks in a hot tub and shows no fear of the issue. In fact, he respects the initiative, and offers Kane a job. When Kane emerges back into the hallway, it’s clear he joined Sultan in the tub, and he’s sold out. The job he’s taken was Sol’s. Sol is kicked out of the building, and Kane’s crew leave right behind him.

20th Century Fox

Conklin is promoted aggressively from there. At another press conference, the true contender Shabazz appears again, furious. Conklin confronts him, and his vaunted overhand right knocks Shabazz out. It’s a sucker punch, but it sells the fight a bit more. From there, Kane reads from a blank piece of paper, one of 100,000 pieces of fan mail supposedly addressed to “Irish” Terry. He crafts a story of a young man in a wheelchair saying Conklin has given him hope that anything is possible.

Conklin is an interesting character. He is not really painted as any sort of saint or someone being truly taken advantage of; he’s not legitimately reluctant to cash in (literally or metaphorically) on any kind of popularity or notoriety. He may pose as some sort of artist with principles fighting for the betterment of mankind, but he isn’t one. He’s a guy being given a lot of money and a lot of fame, and taking it. Any protests he offers are empty.

Roper has his intriguing shades, too. He doesn’t take the fight with Conklin seriously at all, getting visibly out of shape, barely training, devouring ice cream and smoking constantly. “I could beat Conklin and my meat at the same time,” he tells his concerned trainer. Even the promotional material is worked around Roper being fat.

But there is also a scene of an interview Roper is doing. He’s indifferent to press at best even normally, but he’s downright dismissive of it here. He shrugs off Conklin’s much-publicized charitable donations, but the reporter reveals that Roper actually does a lot of charity himself, both with his money and his personal time, he’s just never publicized it. Roper doesn’t want to talk about it now, either.

One of the subplots of the movie sees Kane pulled aside from the shadows by the fired Sol, who convinces Kane to take Sultan down and become the new leader, as he and many of the others on the team would be glad to find a new man to follow. This leads to Kane getting it into his head that Conklin could potentially actually win. He signs Conklin himself, which Sultan accepts, in a menacing fashion. After all, Sultan truly believes the fight is a lock, and that Conklin has no shot.

The weigh-in drives home the racial divide of the fight’s audience. A lean, in-shape Conklin has developed a strong female following, and also brought some white fans into the fold. We see even more of this at the fight itself. Roper, meanwhile, is disgruntled and insulted; after 38 fights, all of which he’s won, he’s being treated like a joke. When he disrobes and reveals a comical prosthetic beer belly, he’s so slovenly the unlit cigar falls from Bert Sugar’s mouth.

The fight is a circus presentation. Brian Setzer sings Conklin in to “Danny Boy,” with little people in leprechaun outfits throwing a movie knockoff version of Lucky Charms cereal into the crowd. Backstage, Roper makes everyone wait a long time. He’s not nervous; anything but, in fact. He’s just having a cigarette and watching Dolemite.

When the champ eventually heads to the ring, he’s accompanied by Method Man doing an incredibly clear live rap during a boxing entrance, which is the least realistic thing in the entire film.

20th Century Fox

After Conklin taunts the champ about being scared and out of shape, the largely white crowd in the arena is whipped into a frenzy. He does get some shots in, but Roper, holding against the ropes, assures his concerned trainer he’s playing with the challenger. Conklin finally does hit that clean overhand right — it knocked Roper out in the amateurs and staggers him here. But mostly it pisses Roper off. He quickly recovers from the shot and unleashes a brutal, fight-ending assault on Conklin, knocking the pretend Irishman clean out in the middle of the ring. The official time of the fight is 27 seconds, and the entire crowd is enraged.

But it doesn’t matter. Boxing works if you sell the fight beforehand, not after. People can be as mad as they want to be if you’ve already gotten their money.

Sultan, of course, is not angry. He laughs in Kane’s face as Kane realizes how badly he’s been played. Early indications are that pay-per-view buys were “through the roof,” Sultan is told. Kane does wander over to offer a woozy Terry the advice that he should not take a rematch, and Conklin does not intend to do so. Is it a moment where Kane has come back to his senses? Hardly. He was a tabloid reporter. And he is still a grifter. He offers to manage Conklin’s return to rock n’ roll.

Post-fight, Shabazz and Hassan enter the ring again. Annoyed that Shabazz is again trying to steal his moment, Roper takes his gloves off and approaches. When Hassan takes out a gigantic handgun, Roper knocks him out and throws on Shabazz. The contender easily slips the slow punches from the out of shape champion and knocks him out. Sultan steps over Roper’s body to embrace Shabazz and sell the next fight.

Rating: 2.5/5

The other movies we’ve watched thus far (The Harder They Fall, Fat City, Rocky) have all focused, in one way or another, on the harsh realities of the boxing business. The Great White Hype does this, too, but in a more satirical manner; there are cutting statements made about boxing, but all with the comedic edge, as this is a comedy.

The movie is flawed in its execution, particularly in that it feels rushed and packed into its 90 minutes, as if there is a lot of key stuff missing that could’ve made the whole narrative stronger and deeper. But a lot of the satire does work pretty nicely, I would think even more if you’re really familiar with boxing as a business than if you aren’t. There are some explorations into some of the absurdities of boxing, but none cut deep enough to really warrant a sincere discussion, in all honesty.

So is it worth a watch? I mean, right now anything is worth a watch. Many of us have 90 minutes to kill now and then that we didn’t before, and there are enough amusing parts to make it worthwhile. Is it a good movie? Not really, but it’s not a real stinker, either.

BLH Boxing Movie Rankings, as of now:

  1. Fat City (1972) 4.5
  2. Rocky (1976) 4.5
  3. The Harder They Fall (1956) 3.5
  4. The Great White Hype (1996) 2.5