Fast, furious, pummelingly funny, The Great White Hype is exceedingly wise to the ways of both professional boxing and the media that cover it. Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) stars as a Don King-clone promoter, the Rev. Fred Sultan, who wears iridescent turbans over platinum gray hair. Sultan manages the undefeated heavyweight champ, James ”the Grim Reaper” Roper, played with deadly eyes and a curled lip by Damon Wayans (who is, by the way, the only good thing in Celtic Pride).
In the genially jaundiced script by Tony Hendra and Ron Shelton (White Men Can’t Jump), Reverend Sultan wants to find a white fighter to challenge Roper, since it’s no secret that more whites will pay to see an interracial bout than one between two African-Americans. Sultan finds his man in Terry Conklin, played by Chicago Hope‘s Peter Berg as a mouth-breather with a heart of gold. A sort of Gerry Cooney with a conscience and a cheap guitar, Terry dedicates his fight to ”the homeless” and spends his downtime strumming a rock opera about their plight. Wayans, by contrast, manages to make Roper’s fierce militancy (”My blackness will beat that kid,” he declares) seem like common sense.
Reginald Hudlin, who directed 1990’s raucous House Party, knows how to extract humor from chaos, and so he swirls the pace of The Great White Hype into a froth of taunts, jabs, and satire. Sultan hypes Terry as a plucky Irish lad; when the fighter protests, ”But I’m not Irish,” Terry’s trainer says, ”This is boxing — if you’re white, you’re Irish.” When Roper wants inspiration, he watches Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite, one of Hype‘s many cool black-pop-culture in-jokes.
Jon Lovitz is around to do his always-welcome sniveling-weasel act as one of Sultan’s henchmen, and Jeff Goldblum gets a lot of artfully sarcastic mileage out of the confused role of a journalist-turned-manager who’s supposed to be both likable and a sellout. (This is where the disparate sensibilities of Hudlin, Hendra, and Shelton most obviously clashed.)
The fight scenes, while played for laughs, are also shot with bone-crunching authenticity; neither Wayans nor Berg looks like he’s pulling punches. If Jackson seems to be having the most fun in his gleefully gaudy role, it’s the two boxers who give this rowdy comedy its lifeblood.