Some baseball movies focus on iconic heroes and their triumphs and tragedies. Others concentrate on the poetry of the game. Still others use our national pastime as a metaphor for some higher ideal. 'Major League,' to its everlasting credit, does none of those things. Refreshingly, it has no agenda. It's about baseball, pure and simple. And like baseball, it's raucous, exciting, romantic, foul-mouthed, goofy, and full of passion and spirit. Everything we love about the sport is right there on the screen, and maybe that's why this screwy 1989 comedy has not just endured, but broadened its fan base over the years. Now, I'm a big fan of 'The Pride of the Yankees,' 'The Natural,' 'Eight Men Out,' and 'Bull Durham,' but in my book, none of them can touch 'Major League.' With apologies to Fox Sports Net, it's the best damn baseball movie period.
Is it a work of cinematic art? Hell no! From a production standpoint, 'Major League' looks chintzy, the actors tend to mug, and some of the situations are cartoonish. I could nitpick away at this film until I'm blue in the face, but that doesn't change the fact that no other baseball picture is as entertaining from start to finish or so perfectly captures all of the sport's quirks, idiosyncrasies, and nuts-and-bolts elements. From spring training right through to the stomach-churning pennant chase in the fall, writer-director David S. Ward immerses us in the game and so vividly duplicates the ballpark atmosphere, we feel like we're right there in the stands cheering and jeering the hapless Cleveland Indians. Off the field, 'Major League' possesses little visual style, but Ward has a terrific knack for sports photography, and his game footage thrusts us into the action better than any other baseball film, heightening excitement and suspense, and rivaling ESPN highlight clips. A hot dog, some Crackerjack, and a frosty brew are all we need to make the experience complete.
The film's premise is inspired. When Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), the ex-showgirl widow of the Cleveland Indians' owner, takes over the team, she's hell-bent on relocating the Tribe to Miami, where she's been promised a swanky new stadium, palatial digs, and membership in an elite country club. The Indians' contract, however, prohibits such a move unless attendance falls below 800,000 for the year. To make the turnstiles stop spinning, Rachel throws together a ragtag team of assorted "has-beens and never-will-bes" that's specially designed to finish "dead last." There's Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), a washed-up catcher with bad knees; Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), who's more concerned with managing his stock portfolio and cultivating his prettyboy image than fielding grounders; Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), an ex-con pitcher with a supersonic fastball and no control whatsoever; Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), a fleet-footed base-stealer who can't get on base; and Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert), a voodoo-worshipping power hitter who can't hit a breaking ball. And who's the lucky guy who gets to manage this motley crew? Why none other than gravelly-voiced Lou Brown (James Gammon), an off-season tire salesman who's led the Indians' Toledo farm club for the past three decades.
On paper, this group of Indians makes the '62 Mets look like all-stars, but what Rachel doesn't count on is the team's drive and perseverance. Despite their respective infirmities, the players possess real talent, and as hard as Rachel tries to make them fail (and boy, does she try), the Indians are determined to pull themselves together and win…if they don't kill each other first.
To Ward, no aspect of baseball is sacrosanct; he takes aim at prima donna players, bleacher bums, play-by-play announcers, grizzled managers, outlandish superstitions, locker room brawls, pranks and practical jokes, eccentric team owners, womanizing, trash talking, and religion. But his shots aren't cheap. 'Major League' is that rare breed of comedy that's reverently irreverent. The lampooning is done with the utmost respect, and is so deeply and cleverly rooted in truth that its hilarity quotient rises exponentially. On the surface, 'Major League' may seem dumb, but it's really one heck of a smart comedy, with more laugh-out-loud moments per capita than any other sports spoof. And these laughs don't go stale, no matter how many times we've seen the movie or how well we've memorized the script. Most of them belong to the priceless Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker), the hysterically blunt Indians announcer who flat-out steals the show. Among his quotable gems: "Heywood leads the league in most offensive categories, including nose hair. When this guy sneezes, he looks like a party favor." Or: "This guy threw at his own kid during a father-son game." And who could forget the all-time classic: "Juuuust a bit outside…"
All the actors nail their roles, but Sheen is the standout as the myopic, dim-witted, hot-headed Vaughn. His entrance through the bullpen gate to the guitar-laden strains of Wild Thing at the big game's pivotal moment is without a doubt the defining image of this film. And it's perfectly complemented by the expletive-laced response from the tart-tongued Whitton. The brassy blonde may faintly remind us of Bette Midler, but she makes Rachel Phelps all her own as she crafts one of the most delicious comedic villainesses ever to grace the screen. It's also a hoot to see Snipes, Haysbert, and Rene Russo (as Berenger's love interest) in the early days of their respective careers.
In the grand scheme of movie history, 'Major League' is but a minor blip on Hollywood's radar, but there's no denying the lasting appeal of this beloved, sharp-witted, hugely entertaining sports comedy. Few other films in any genre can match its cadre of memorable lines and priceless situations, or hold up as well over repeat viewings. Every time out, it bats 1.000, and you just can't do any better than that.
It's hard to believe 'Major League' is 20 years old, but unfortunately it looks its age on Blu-ray disc. While Paramount did a nice job with the previous DVD remaster a couple of years ago, boosting clarity and color saturation, the studio dropped the ball with this flat, drab 1080p transfer that rarely matches the vitality of the on-screen action. Paramount has a hit-and-miss track record with its catalog Blu-ray upgrades, and this supremely disappointing effort misses big.
First of all, an annoying softness (especially evident in long shots) pervades the less-than-pristine print, which exhibits more than a few nicks and blemishes. Contrast is also rather weak, lending the image a decided two-dimensional feel. Some scenes enjoy a healthy dose of high-def pop, but they occur randomly, and the transfer's patchwork nature quickly becomes irritating. There's some highly visible digital noise in certain shots, and it also seems as if some DNR has been applied, as facial features look a bit too smooth and close-ups lack the crisp details we expect. The texture of fabrics is lost, too, and interior details blend easily into the background.
Colors, for the most part, lack vibrancy; though the ballpark turf possesses a natural sheen during day games, it adopts an artificial neon tint at night. And while the dark blue uniforms are well saturated, reds look anemic and more delicate hues lack distinction. Fleshtones run toward reddish-orange, but whites pop with pleasing crispness. Blacks are okay, but never achieve desired depth levels.
One of the joys of 'Major League' is the way it brings viewers into the game and almost makes us feel as if we're watching a live sporting event. And while the transfer could never rival 'Sunday Night Baseball' on ESPN-HD, it should look a lot better than this.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio also doesn't provide the expected boost in fidelity and detail. It's a fine track with clear, well-modulated tones and some noticeable front channel separation, but atmospherics are standard at best and the essential ballpark ambience doesn't come through as strongly as it should. The quotable dialogue is always easy to understand, and effects such as hand-clapping and the crack of the bat add noticeable punch to the mix, but I expected more from a lossless encode.
Rear action is quite faint, and the lack of it is especially noticeable (and regrettable) during the climactic game with the Yankees. Sonically, 'Major League' is all about the cheering fans and the blare of Wild Thing as Vaughn struts in from the bullpen, and this track just doesn't deliver to the appropriate degree during that critical sequence. Though we can taste the atmosphere, we're not engulfed in and swept away by it, and that's a shame.
James Newton Howard's synthesized '80s music score perks up the soundscape occasionally and offers some welcome bass accents toward the end, but it can't rescue this track from mediocrity.
Paramount ports over all the extras from the 2007 DVD edition of 'Major League,' and presents them all in standard definition. It's a nice array of supplements that will please fans and mixes substantive material with goofy fluff.
Familiarity often breeds contempt, but not so with 'Major League.' No matter how many times we've seen it, this hall-of-fame comedy never gets old. Laugh-out-loud funny with spirited performances and plenty of excitement and heart, David S. Ward's love letter to our national pastime hits a homerun every time it steps up to the plate. Unfortunately, a lackluster Blu-ray presentation, marked by middling video and audio transfers, drags down its score, but can't keep this fan favorite from receiving a solid recommendation. Pete Rose and Barry Bonds may not deserve to be enshrined at Cooperstown, but 'Major League' most certainly does.
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