The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Major League

Just as a sports fan, I can appreciate there's something more special about certain sports than others. I love watching basketball, football, soccer and volleyball, but baseball will always be my favorite one to watch. That opinion not surprisingly makes the jump to sports movies where baseball movies rule supreme, especially 1989's Major League.

It's been 40-plus years (in 1989 at least) since the Cleveland Indians last won an American League pennant when a new owner, Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), takes over the franchise. She's got a plan though for the struggling franchise. A clause in the city contract allows the franchise to move if attendance is at a league-low, and Rachel wants to move the Indians to sunny Miami. With hopes of driving fans away from the stadium, she assembles a team of past their prime vets, unrecognizable rookies, and in general, a team of misfits. Among the group is creaky-kneed veteran catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), ex-con with a live arm Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), and speedster on the bases Willie Mays Hays (Wesley Snipes). The team starts off badly enough, but then they figure out Rachel's plan. Can they turn it around in time?

Ignoring the two sequels (entertaining but admittedly mediocre), Major League is hard to beat as far as sports -- and more specifically  baseball -- movies go. It's truly funny with countless memorable bits and running gags, but the drama also feels real. From director David S. Ward, 'Major' used Milwaukee's County Stadium as a replacement home for the Indians. The actual MLB stadium gives an authentic feel to the developing season, especially late in the movie during the climactic one-game playoff with thousands of extras packing the stadium. It's also the little things, the running bits about different fans from the never-say-die fans in the bleachers (Too high! being a classic, watch HERE), the foul-mouthed, doubting Japanese grounds-crew, and then the average fan on the street, bonding together around their team. As a baseball fan in real life, it feels authentic.

The misfit underdog is nothing new to the sports genre, but the assembled group of misfit characters help make this movie a classic (even making the sequels tolerable in their own awful uniqueness). Some 23 years later, fans typically talk about Sheen's Vaughn or Snipes' Hayes, but Berenger is the star here. His creaky veteran has in baseball purgatory, wasting away in Mexico and hoping for a chance to get back to the majors. While the other characters may be more memorable, Berenger's Jake ends up being the heart of the movie, delivering a career-best performance. Sheen and Snipes are scene-stealers as the youngsters and breakout stars on the Indians. Sheen did his own pitching and looks like a baseball player while Snipes' infectious attitude makes it impossible not to like the character who's cocky and confident without being obnoxious.

Not so fast though, there's more, starting with James Gammon as gravelly-voiced, no-nonsense, old school baseball manager Lou Brown. A long-time minor league manager, he brings his gruff manner of coaching to the Indians, not wanting to put up with any primadonnas or attitudes. Among the other players are Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), the third baseman more interested in his post-baseball career than showing effort now, Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert in a scene-stealing part), the Cuban exile outfielder who can crush fastballs but not offspeed pitches and turns to his voodoo roots, and Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross), the junkball, rag arm pitcher who uses every trick in the book to keep batters off balance. Also worth mentioning is Charles Cyphers as Charlie Donovan, the Indians GM forced to keep his mouth shut as the team crumbles.

Now as good as all of these characters are, most people think of one thing when 'Major League' comes up, and that's long-time Milwaukee Brewers radio man Bob Uecker as Indians radio play-by-play Harry Doyle. A review dedicated solely to Doyle's on-air one liners would be one of the easiest reviews ever written. He drinks Jack Daniels while on-air and lacks even the slightest censor as he describes the action ("Indians manage one hit? One goddamn hit?"). Doyle's unique spin always keeps the radio listeners involved, famously describing a pitch seven to eight feet off the plate as 'Jjjjjjust a bit outside.' His on-air banter is perfect, his asides to his silent color man even funnier. A part that makes a good sports movie a great sports movie.

This isn't a perfect sports movie though, Berenger's love story subplot with ex-wife Rene Russo grinding the movie to a halt. Far too much time is spent on their backstory, distracting from the baseball action. As a baseball movie though, it is about as perfect as it gets. It gets the baseball right though with plenty of laughs, in-game action, and a great finale as the Indians battle to get into the playoffs. One of the best sports movies around.

Major League <---trailer (1989): *** 1/2 /****

No comments:

Post a Comment