Still a hit after all these years, Bull Durham remains a fun baseball movie that doesn't depend on the "big game" to tell its story. This new Criterion Collection version of the film offers up a brand-new transfer that does the movie justice, along with enough bonus materials to satisfy fans. The result may not quite be a home run, but it's certainly enough to make this release Highly Recommended.
After 30 years, I still believe in the church of baseball, and I still love Bull Durham. Despite its ongoing popularity, the movie was never a smash hit at the box office, pulling in a respectable $50 million (against an estimated $7 to $9 million budget) during its theatrical run and never finishing higher than fourth in any week of its release (it actually finished sixth the weekend of its release). So why does it still come up in the conversation about the best sports films ever? Because it feels "real" and because it respects the sport it portrays, without ever sugar-coating it.
There have been other really good baseball movies to be sure. But Bull Durham doesn't glorify the game like The Natural, it doesn't wax poetic over the game like Field of Dreams (ironically the movie Kevin Costner did immediately following his role here), and it doesn't completely parody the game like Major League. Instead, the movie uses the sport as a method through which to tell a deeper story – about a player reaching the end of his career, an up-and-comer who needs to focus if he's ever going to make the "show", and a woman who spends each season taking young prospects into her bedroom but not quite yet realizing she needs someone as mature as she is to make her life whole.
Kevin Costner's Crash Davis is an aging (by baseball terms) catcher, who was never quite able to make the major league career he wanted – although he was able to spend three weeks in the big leagues at one point. He's been assigned to play for the Class A Durham Bulls, not so much to spark his own career but in the hopes he can help spark that of pitcher Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), an athlete with, as Crash describes it, "a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head". Also in the mix is local Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who picks a player each baseball season to both try and teach him about the game (often involving the reading of classic literature and poetry) as well as fulfill her own sexual needs. This season, she picks Nuke LaLoosh.
Critics have praised the Sarandon character and her relationship with the other two male leads in the movie, but for me the highlight of Bull Durham has always been the relationship between Crash and Nuke – Crash seeing in Nuke the possibility to become what he never had the God-given talent to achieve, and Nuke never quite being able to grasp his own potential. Although there's a scene in the movie with Nuke's own father, it's Crash who is really the father figure here – teaching Nuke all the important things about the game, like never mess with a streak, never hit anyone with your pitching hand, and – most importantly – that the rose always goes in the front.
There's a subtle undercurrent with the Crash character that is never spoken out loud during the movie, but always present: does he help this young pitcher succeed or not, knowing that as soon as Nuke gets called to the "show" that his own career in baseball is most likely over? There's also an underlying sadness with him, knowing that his best days on the field are behind him. Toward the end of the movie, Crash tells Nuke that all that separates the washed up players from the career players is an extra base hit a week...just one base hit. That speech pretty much sums up Crash as a character and probably reflects Director Ron Shelton's thoughts about the game as well (Shelton was a minor league player who never made it to the big leagues).
Bull Durham has endured because it's not just about baseball, it's about life. The way you're always struggling to get to the next level, and how often things don't work out the way you foresee them, but they still (more times than not) work out. It's worth seeing again if you've not watched it in a long time, and if you've never seen it, it's definitely worth checking out.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Bull Durham takes the field from The Criterion Collection with a single 50GB Blu-ray housed inside a clear Scanavo keepcase along with a foldout insert featuring an essay by New Yorker writer Roger Angell. The disc itself features no front-loaded materials, and the menu is the standard Criterion design, with a list of options on the left side of the screen that open up into more options when selected via one's remote control. The menu image is a still of Susan Sarandon sitting in the room in her house that features her baseball shrine.
The Blu-ray in this release is Region A locked.
Bull Durham was shot on 35mm film and gets a brand-new transfer here, which is a 10-bit 4K scan (although, obviously, the Blu-ray can only provide a 1080p image) of the original camera negative. The movie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
The transfer, which according to the insert's liner notes was supervised by Director Ron Shelton, is an impressive one, with lots of color and detail, yet still with visible grain and maintaining the look of film. Black tones are solid throughout, if far from inky deep. Skin tones lean to the warm side of things, but are also consistent. The best part of the image though is how cleaned-up it now is; I didn't notice any instances of dirt, debris, or other defects in the print, yet those responsible for the transfer did not apply heavy use of DNR, so detail has been retained.
There has been some debate over the color tint of this new transfer, as some online forums have claimed the uniforms now have a more teal look than the blue of the prior transfer, but as you can see from the screenshot below of the team, that's really not the case – at least not to the degree that it's a distraction or so far removed from the previous home video releases of the movie that one can't enjoy the film. Any color changes here are minimal and given that Sheldon himself oversaw the transfer, who are we to complain?
The disc contains two English tracks, one in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and one in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. And while you'd think the 5.1 one track would be the one to talk about, it's the same track that has existed on prior releases of the movie. It's actually the 2.0 track here that's newly remastered, and it offers up a pleasant rendering of the audio that better approximates how Bull Durham sounded during its original theatrical run.
As 2.0 tracks go, this is an impressive one, and while one may be tempted to select the 5.1 track instead, it really doesn't add that much to one's enjoyment, as it's a front-heavy presentation with not much use of the surrounds.
Subtitles are available in English SDH only.
After 30 years, Bull Durham remains one of the best sports movies ever, primarily because it's about more than just sports. This new Criterion Collection release of the film offers up a brand-new transfer and a brand-new 2.0 DTS-HD track, along with one new featurette and all the archival ones from previous home video releases. Highly Recommended.