For Love of the Game (1999) ***
Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Dana Stevens from the novel by Michael Shaara. Produced by Armyan Bernstein, Amy Robinson. Photography, John Bailey. Editing, Eric L. Beason, Arthur Coburn. Production design, Neil Spisak. Music, Basil Poledouris. Cast: Kevin Costner (Billy Chapel), Kelly Preston (Jane Aubrey), John C. Reilly (Gus Sinski), Jena Malone (Heather), Brian Cox (Gary Wheeler), J. K. Simmons (Frank Perry), Vin Scully & Steve Lyons (as themselves), Carmine D. Giovinazzo (Ken Strout), Bill Rogers (Davis Birch), Hugh Ross (Mike Udall). A Universal release. 137 minutes. PG-13
Does America love baseball? Has Kevin Costner had box-office hits with the baseball films Bull Durham and Field of Dreams? Has been unlucky with some recent movies --except for Tin Cup where he plays a golfer? Is The Pope Catholic?
So it made good sense to do a third baseball picture. He is Billy Chapel, the Detroit Tigers ace pitcher and prime Hall of Fame candidate. Now he's in New York for a game at Yankee Stadium. His shoulder hurts. His soul hurts as he is told that his team is being sold. He's 40, getting older by sports standards. He has 19 years of pro playing behind him. And his heart is breaking because his girl, magazine writer Jane (Kelly Preston) announces that it's all over between them; that he really needs no one; that his real love is baseball; that in a few hours she's off to England where a dream-job is expecting her.
That's the set-up. From here on out it's flashbacks and flashforwards that would be artsy and tiresome (but can be a tad tiring) except that Sam Raimi --who directed The Evil Dead but caught us by surprise in 1998 with the so-different A Simple Plan-- manages his script and his team (of actors) with a sure-hand and an obvious passion for The Game.
Five years ago Billy and Jane first met. They met cute, but it's funny and fresh. Their relationship is charted back and forth, surprises abound, there's even a surprise young girl, Heather (Jena Malone) who livens, warms up and helps crystallize the lovers' on-off relationship. More, I cannot say, since this is sports movie but also a character-driven picture. It has its own levels of suspense, in personal and in sports matters.
There are some clever inventions (events, scenes, sequences), whether in rainy New York, sunny Florida or the snowy West. The plot is highly manipulative of course, as it plays with the characters' actions and reactions, and with the audience's response to what is on the screen. The tricks of the trade, both filmic and baseballic, are out in force. But they are well handled, keep your attention and do not ever get boring. Even the music score by Greek-American Poledouris, though generic/romantic, skirts the bombastic repetitions by Greek-Greek composer Vangelis in that popular sports-movie Chariots of Fire.
All this would still be high-class routine stuff, were it not for the superb scenes in the ballpark, their mise-en-scene, their photography, the realistically filmed crowds : excellent, imaginative photography, sound-mixes, editing that coordinates people and actions in the diamond and off it. We get the players, the raucous fans, and we get the iffy but touching thoughts of Billy during his mind games with the opponents. He's fighting (under physical and psychological handicaps) for his team, his good name, and his exit from the Tigers (he'll be traded, no matter what happens).
The movie treats its players with a glove (not kid, but still), as we only see and hear rather comradely things with no trace of locker-roomitis. The closest to a nasty presence is a young Yankees batter who looks satanic. Billy foils him again and again. But the game is a gem of excitement and suspense.
The players (in both senses) are very good, although there is no true depth in the affair, the setbacks and the Fun With Bill and Jane. Costner has the right physique for the role, but it does get a bit redundant as we watch him suffer. Kelly Preston is convincing as a real person, as opposed to one playing a part. She does not want to be a groupie, but the presumed intensity of the affair is made somewhat ho-hum by three things: the lightning fast, out-of-character (hers) speed of her initial sex with Billy; our knowledge that so many male sports figures are incorrigible woman-collectors; and the studio-imposed carnal cuts in order to get a PG-13 rating. Young Jena Malone is beautifully cast as she matches perfectly Preston's looks.
The winningest side of the film is the great edge-of-the-seat footage which works both on baseball lovers and on non-aficionados.