With the upcoming release of Creed on November 25, the Rocky films have given fans an earnest and heartfelt look into the life of a professional boxer, The Great White Hype is not a film that does any of that
Released in 1996, The Great White Hype is not inspirational or uplifting. It is as far from Rocky as one can get. Meant to be a satire about boxing, spin, fight promotion, and racial tension, Hype comes off as a semi-realistic look at the world of professional boxing.
Damon Wayans plays James “The Grim Reaper” Roper, the current heavyweight champion of the world and as complacent as it gets. He even goes so far as to gently complain about his victory over an opponent during a post fight interview. His manager/promoter/sort of father figure Reverend Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson) talks his way out of paying Roper his bounty from his most recent fight because the event was a financial failure.
Sultans’ grand plan is to create a white heavyweight for Roper to fight, playing on the racial divide and the assumed desire for the audience to see such an event. He and his coterie of associates locate Terry Conklin (Peter Berg, director of The Kingdom, Hancock) front man for a rock band in Cleveland and the last person to defeat Roper when they were both teenagers in a Golden Gloves tournament. Terry has little interest at first, proclaiming he does not need to fight, happy with his band, and wanting to help the homeless. Reverend Sultan sweetens the deal with the offer of a big payday for Terry to help the homeless as much as he sees fit.
Re-branding him as “Irish” Terry Conklin, complete with an English trainer and a kilt, Sultan sets his plan into motion. Going so far as to recruit journalist Mitchell Kane (played by Jeff Goldblum), who at first attempts to expose Sultan for the charlatan he is, the spin machine begins to work its magic on the general public.
The best parts here showcase the hype and spin machine. From the weigh in, where Wayans shows up looking severely out of shape, to a white-haired grandmother at a betting window putting “$2 on the clean-cut white boy”, this has the feel of what boxing really is, as opposed the noble endeavor showcased in the Rocky films.
After all the hype, spin, and backdoor dealing to make Conklin the #8 contender for the title, you could almost believe that Conklin can win this. He’s in much better shape, the media loves him, he even does a photo shoot for Playboy Magazine, which he then says he despised doing and again champions his desire the help the homeless. It also appears that Mitchell Kane believes, seeking to backdoor Sultan by becoming Conklins’ promoter and hopefully the promoter of the next heavyweight champion.
After a stirring rendition of “Danny Boy”, performed by Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats, Conklin is led to the ring by leprechauns (not real ones, but little people in costume) and the crowd at a fever pitch. Roper takes his sweet time heading to the ring, delaying so he can watch his favorite scene from ‘Dolemite‘.
The bell rings and the fight is over before it has even begun. Conklin goes for an overhand right (the punch he knocked a young James Roper out with at 15), which enrages the champ and Conklin is flat on his back barely two minutes in. No comeback, no stirring music, no motivational speech from his corner.
Anchored by solid supporting performances from Corbin Bernsen, Rocky Carroll (NCIS), Jon Lovitz, and Jamie Foxx, this movie will not tug at your heartstrings, but it will give you sharp wit, tons of humor, and a great skewed view of the machine of professional boxing.