Nicholson, on the technical side of things, displays a fascinating editing style that keeps things on edge during the basketball scenes, and implements darkness in many other scenes with a documentary-feel throughout. And from Tepper, Black, and even Robert Towne (writer of Chinatown, Last Detail, and Mission: Impossible among others, who rarely acts) he garners some credible acting work. Though in Tepper there is a tendency to downplay his emotions. In some scenes, for example, when he could act brilliantly sarcastic, he doesn't play it for what it's worth. From Margotta, on the other hand, there is a vibrant, twisted force in his performance, and as he descends it's frightening, but perhaps understandable from the times (and what a climax). Dern steals most of his scenes, by the way, in a performance that should have garnered him an Oscar nomination. Every line of his dialog is appropriate, true, and it's never hammed up like in recent coach movie performances.
But what drags down the film is that elements involving the characters aren't explained to the degree one might wish more. The film was based on a novel by Jeremy Larner, who co-wrote the script with Nicholson, and I was expecting that the film to be longer than it was. It's a slim volume with a lot of information, about the times, about the sport, about the underlying feelings that were with those of the younger generation. Nicholson presents us with these characters and situations, and rarely are they shown to what's motivating them (the anti-war protesters not included, their part's understandable enough). Gabriel is perturbed by what's going on in Vietnam, but what else is there? Hector, too, is a guy who has apprehensions about being drafted for the NBA, and he still loves to play, but what's holding him back? This whole atmosphere is intriguing, how the late 60's college/basketball experience was, but that intriguing quality, which does lead to some unconventionality, is kept at a point where it can't go too further. Overall, the effect of the film as a whole is bittersweet, and somewhat memorable for its good points, and not for it's low ones. And, for sure, you can tell who's behind the lens every step of the way. B+