Baseball's an unpredictable game. A batter can go 5-5 one game, and 0-4 the next. He can hit three homers, then do nothing but strike out or hit groundballs. Pitchers can run up a lengthy scoreless inning streak, then give up five runs in a single inning. That's all a part of the fun. With 162 game seasons (in the majors, minors have slightly shorter go-rounds), there are plenty of ups and downs to be had for nearly every player and team. It's a game where discipline and intelligence meets raw talent and sheer luck, and despite losing the aura of being America's Pastime to football (let's be honest, the torch has been passed in recent years), there is no sport as mesmerizing, awe inspiring, and capable of creating legends and villains than ol' stickball.
On a night when the second perfect game this season, and only the twentieth ever thrown in major league history, was thrown by Roy Halladay, erasing our memories of Dallas Braden's feat early this year, it felt like a great night to visit a Kevin Costner baseball film. Ideally, that would be 'For Love of the Game,' where Costner's character was in pursuit of perfection, but it just so happened 'Bull Durham' was on the slate instead.
It's the 1987 baseball season in the Single A Durham Bulls organization, and already newcomer Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) is making history. With his first game consisting of records for strikeouts, walks allowed, wild pitches, and mascots hit, it's somewhat obvious the talented youth needs discipline, and as such, the contract of "Crash" Davis (Costner) is bought, to create a battery capable of winning games and teaching LaLoosh how to refine his talent. Their relationship is rocky at best, with the mentor/student mentalities being bucked from the start. It will take the "teachings" of Annie Savoy (Susan Surandon), a groupie of sorts who beds down with one player a year, to try to rein in the youngster who's aiming to make a name for himself (a name that would become "Nuke"). But from the start of her relationship with "Nuke," the presence of "Crash" creates tension, as his demeanor and intelligence matches hers blow for blow. As the Durham Bulls go on both losing and winning streaks, Davis and LaLoosh soon come to not only trust in each other, but teach the other a thing or two.
'Bull Durham' is highly regarded as one of the greatest sporting films ever made, with both Sports Illustrated and Rotten Tomatoes giving it the top honors. The thing is, I can't even say that I'd consider it the best baseball film starring Costner, despite all its strengths, and no, I'm not referring to 'Field of Dreams,' as I've honestly had a hard time even appreciating that one. The mixture of past and present (and future) in 'For Love of the Game' has always struck me, and helped create truly three dimensional characters that are both memorable and relatable, despite their positions in life. While 'Bull Durham' boasts relatable characters, and a superior love story, it's somewhat lacking in the developed characters department.
The film is a great mixture of themes, from the romantic main story arc, with the baseball subplot (any great sports movie uses the sport itself as the background, not the foreground!), alongside some scene stealing humor, internal drama, and a story of self importantance and accepting one's place in the world. It can be simplified by being called a mixture of sex and baseball, which is phallic enough on a good day, but there's so much going on at any given time that this is the kind of film that can take a few viewings to fully realize the intricacies of.
Costner is solid as the voice of reason and experience, and his place in the film is also quite interesting and, honestly, perfectly crafted. As the "player to be named later," a designator for a future "favor" between ball clubs making a trade, you can tell he's played for almost as many cities as he's played at as a visitor. He's a solid hitter, who is just 20 home runs away from holding the somewhat dubious record for most in the minor leagues, but only lasted 21 days in the majors in his ten year career. He tries to outthink his opponents when he's at the plate, playing like a statistician more than an arrogant baller. And while he plays games for a living, he isn't about to be playing Annie's games when it comes to her pitting him against "Nuke" for her "affections," to put it politely. As he states that he's "too old for this shit," when referring to going back to Single A, it also fits his mentality concerning relationship drama and courting.
Of course, even with "Crash" turning down Annie's advances, "Nuke" ends up in a competitive rivalry with his mentor, as the two spar on the field, in the clubhouse, on the road, and in each other's minds, a particular battle in which "Nuke" has no chance, as he goes into that one unarmed. He's wild, not only at the mound, but in his personal life, putting him more in line for Annie's talents and attention. But he is no match for her in any other way. His cockiness on the mound, and unintellectual demeanor put him at the losing end of nearly every battle he faces, as his mental predisposition is one that opens him up to being taken advantage of. Honestly, he's so damn stupid he thinks aloud at times. But young kids capable of throwing 96 mile an hour fastballs not only at the start of a game, but at the end are in short supply. He's on the fast track, even if he's not ready, but he's too damn stupid and/or arrogant to realize he needs to listen. Robbins does a good job with the character, but I couldn't stop thinking about him in other roles, as he doesn't stand out and truly blend into the role, and a few horrible line readings drew me away from "Nuke" the character and back to Robbins the actor.
Sarandon, well, much like "Crash," she seems a bit too old for this shit. Just 42 when the film was made, she seems much older, and I'm not referring to mentally, so her mentality to pick up the "boys" is somewhat disturbing at first. She's a baseball fanatic and student of the game, but she's also a black widow of sorts, even if she improves the people she is with. The most important piece in this puzzle, she does a pretty decent job of tying the pieces together, though, much like Robbins, I had a hard time accepting her in the role. Costner I can accept as a baseball player, manager, anything like that. It's kind of who he is (he sure as hell ain't Robin Hood).
'Bull Durham' pokes fun at the rituals and superstitions of the game, as well as the politics and realities of the cold and harsh climate the players face. Sorry to wander into spoiler territory, but any catcher capable of hitting 20 dingers, regardless of age, would never be set loose by a baseball team, regardless of who they have at the same position. The position is responsible for handling pitchers, is the backbone of any defense, and requires the most thinking capabilities, so when a true hitter is also in the position, like Johnny Bench or Mike Piazza, the rare complete package doesn't ever get shit on in such a way. Perhaps that's just the baseball fanatic in me speaking. In the scope of the film, in my eyes, it doesn't even make a lick of sense, but perhaps others will see change as a catalyst in the film. 'Bull Durham' isn't a perfect baseball film or romantic drama, but it is a great blend of the two elements, creating a film enjoyable by anyone with patience. I know many people find baseball boring, so combined with a character study/romance, it could seem like torture. The payoff is there, though, for anyone willing to step to the plate.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Bull Durham' is slated to arrive on Blu-ray on August 3, 2010, but on May 25, Best Buy stores released the film early, most probably as a timed store exclusive. Strangely enough, the other Fox combo releases (DVD + Blu-ray) slated for August were also found. They are re-releases of the existing Blu-ray Discs, with the addition of their previous DVD editions. This release is housed on a BD25, and is housed in a standard thickness two disc eco-case. Hooray, environment. Boo to the fact that I could literally bend this case in half when it was still shrinkwrapped.
'Bull Durham' is given a 1080p MPEG-2 encode at 1.85:1 that I wish I could say "is kinda radical in a tubular way," to quote "Nuke." Thing is, I can't really say that, despite the fact it's not bad by any means. The transfer is solid, but it's a little too shaky and inconsistent for its own good. The first thing anyone will notice will be the thick, hearty grain, which is fairly busy, and keeps its vibrancy throughout the entire film, and the second would be the amount of dirt in the early part of the film, which clears up over time nicely. Colors are natural, though blacks aren't too deep, though nothing really stands out. Skin tones are accurate and natural, and are only off in some harsher lighting environments. Extreme closeups sport great detail, though on more than a handful of occasions the picture finds itself blurry and flat. There is a small amount of color bleed here and there, but thankfully, no aliasing, banding, or even artifacting issues. Detail isn't all that strong, honestly, but this transfer is no lollygagger.
The audio for 'Bull Durham' is given a default DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, with a backup Stereo track and a few dubs, with a small load of subtitle options that differ in language from the dubs. While the video is slightly troubled but overall enjoyable, the audio is a bit more unremarkable. Forgettable. Dynamic range is solid, from the very opening bit of soundtrack, and volume jumps from time to time appropriately, instead of being stuck in place. Dialogue has no problem prioritizing itself, and the only times a few words were difficult to discern were caused by the combination of rushed speaking and bad accents. There is no bass presence to speak of, but I can't imagine any place it would be appropriate. Rears get a little bit of activity, from soundtrack bleed anytime music plays, to the occasional crowd ambiance. Unfortunately, the crowds don't always find their way to the rears, so it can seem a tad awkward at times. There were a few moments that dialogue came off as hollow, in the same areas/rooms where dialogue had no problems before, but that's somewhat of a minor gripe.
MGM, ya did it again. There is not a single extra on this release. None. Instead, they are all found on the second disc, a repackaging of the 2008 Collector's Edition re-release of the film on DVD. Sure, there's plenty there to discuss, with two audio commentaries, interviews, a making of feature, a feature on the minor leagues, and a few throwaway featurettes. But since they're not on the Blu-ray itself, they hold no weight in the score of the Blu-ray itself.
'Bull Durham' is a good, if not great, film. It's got good baseball action, as well as an immersive romantic storyline to keep both sexes interested. That said, there are a few less than stellar performances. MGM's Blu-ray release has average audio and video, and a complete void in the place of extras. Die hard fans will want to pick this up right away at Best Buy, but it's sure to be cheaper down the road when the official release day hits.