(For Raimifest, run by Bryce Wilson over at the witty and wonderful Things That Don't Suck.)
"...you get the feeling that Billy Chapel isn't pitching against left handers, he isn't pitching against pinch hitters, he isn't pitching against the Yankees. He's pitching against time. He's pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer."
Forty-year-old Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) is at the very end of his career. Pretty much everything has collapsed around him - his tumultuous baseball career is ending with a losing season, and his long-term but difficult relationship with New York career woman Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) seems to have similarly, and permanently, hit the skids. To make matters worse, the poor bastard is throwing his last game in Yankee Stadium, where thousands of fans have gathered to jeer at him. Though focused on the game at hand, Chapel recalls key moments in both his career and his relationship with Jane, and becomes so involved in his memories that he doesn't immediately realize that he's pitching the best game of his life.
The last of Costner's baseball movies grows a little schmaltzier with each viewing. The romantic stuff gets longer and more irritating every time I see it - Costner and Preston do their best with the often leaden dialogue, but the hideous MOR pop tunes on the soundtrack oversell the emotions at too many moments.
That said, it's a thoroughly adult romance - we're not asked to believe in a younger woman's attraction to an insanely older man, and Costner and Preston are totally credible through the ups and downs of their believably difficult relationship. The then-15-year-old Jena Malone offers a nicely realized performance as Jane's daughter Heather, a sweetly human foil for both characters.
And, AND, the baseball scenes remain some of the best ever made. The acting really sells the in-game action, with Costner totally believable as a pitcher facing his final game, as is John C. Reilly as his catcher - their relationship feels like one that has been built over years (and JK Simmons, in his first of many appearances in Raimi films, is a joy as their coach). These scenes gain authenticity and dramatic heft with the longtime voice of the Yankees Bob Sheppard and veteran announcer Vin Scully thrillingly calling the game.
You're basically on the mound with Chapel, and his ongoing monologue offers as vivid a sense of the game's mechanics as you'll get anywhere else. The film captures the odd sensation of being completely alone in front of 50,000 people.
Basil Poledouris' theme is a great piece of film music, the perfect accompaniment to the end of an era, and to a tired man's last desperate fight. The brass that ascends beneath the strings is the perfect musical reflection of the conflict within Billy, mirroring the rise of his spirit against his exhaustion and the considerable odds against him. The script from Michael Shaara's novel is generous with character moments, and Costner savors each one. And there's some gorgeous photography as well (from veteran DP John Bailey), as here where Chapel makes a rare plea for divine intervention, and the lights of Yankee Stadium come alive as if in response:
And Reilly's "Just throw" speech before the 8th inning is an impassioned and beautiful monologue, surely one of the cinema's great declarations of heterosexual male-male love.
It's directed by Sam Raimi, and it's challenging to place it comfortably in his oeuvre. It falls in the middle of what one might call a "realist" period in his work, bookended by the modern noir A Simple Plan and the effective character piece The Gift. But though it lacks the gonzoid energy and freneticism of his best known work (from the Evil Dead films through the Spider-Man trilogy), it's no less effects-driven: much CGI was used to fill the seats of Yankee Stadium during the film's off-season shoot (along with actual Yankee fans who showed up to heckle Costner and Reilly for local colour). Most impressive is the sequence in which Chapel "clears the mechanism", a mental means of shutting out the stadium's noise section by section. And one wonders if a more realistically-inclined filmmaker would have brought as much viscera to the film's most harrowing scene in which Chapel receives a career-threatening injury at the wrong end of a table saw.
The scene brings out the best in Jane as she fights to save Billy's hand, tapping into a heroic desperation we've seen in Raimi's films before:
In the end I keep thinking back on Zhang Yimou, who was called upon to defend his retreat into martial arts territory with Hero and House of Flying Daggers. He explained that every Chinese filmmaker has at least one wuxia film in him. Perhaps every American filmmaker has at least one baseball film in them. Given that Raimi himself is a fan of the national pastime, who're we to begrudge him this film?
I first caught For Love of the Game theatrically in October 1999, at the end of the first baseball season I'd followed with any interest. Pretty much every year I watch it shortly after the baseball season winds down, a perfect film for the twilight of the season. And though its flaws become more evident with each viewing, I still get caught up in it, and the 9th inning still makes me cry. I dislike The Natural for the way it deifies its hero, and I find the climactic home run overdone and bland. The characters in For Love of the Game are more recognizably human to me, frail, vulnerable, prone to bouts of total assholishness, capable of greatness, and truly at their best in the company of kindred spirits.
Evil Dead 2 was a staple of my high school years, but For Love of the Game is the Raimi film I've spent the most time with. In some ways, as I draw perilously near to Chapel's age (and I note that Raimi himself turned 40 the year the film was released), I find more real resonance in his conflicts than the cartoonish battles of Ash against the undead. It thrills me to see someone with whom I find more and more familiarity with each passing year finding (and proving) that he's not yet done. It's a solid story, beautifully told, informed by a maturity and gravitas one doesn't often see in Raimi's work. And yet Chapel possesses a likable charm, an often self-defeating capacity for error, and a movingly human strength, all of which he shares with the most memorable of Raimi's heroes. And his goal is no less heroic: to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky. And give us one more day of summer.