Paramount // 1989 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // May 28th, 2009
It's the Citizen Kane of Tom Berenger baseball films!
On paper, Major League looks like just another in the series of cookie-cutter comedies that littered the late Eighties, most of which were godawful. Take a few recognizable names, a couple of character actors, stick them in some cliched situation, and enjoy the laffs aplenty, hyuck hyuck! Ugh. PASS. But a funny thing happened on the way to the discount bin: Major League turned out to be not only good, but great. Against all odds, it's now considered one of the best baseball films ever, more than holding its own with Bull Durham, The Natural, Field of Dreams, The Bad News Bears, and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. It's not because the film is deep, or profound, or one man's journey of self-discovery -- it's naught but a light comedy. It just works. It's gotta be in your collection if you're a baseball fan -- and if you don't already have it, why not go Blu-ray?
It's the Eighties, which means the Cleveland Indians are still a terrible, terrible team. Mired in mediocrity, the team is now owned by a former showgirl, Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton, The Secret of My Success), who inherited it from her dead husband. She wants to move the team to Miami. However, she can only get out of her lease with the city if attendance drops to a very, very low level.
Therefore, she decides that the team needs to stink even worse. She assembles a motley crew of has-beens and never-weres, and unleashes them on the American League. The new manager, Lou Brown (James Gammon, Nash Bridges), was plucked from a tire store. His roster consists of Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen, LA Law), a prima dona aging star playing for a deal somewhere else; Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross, Hoosiers), a junkballer with guile and craftiness but little arm strength; Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert, 24) a powerful Cuban slugger whose voodoo god Jobu can't help him hit a curveball; Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen, Platoon), a juvenile delinquent with a wild but lively arm; and Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes, White Men Can't Jump), an enthusiastic but overconfident (and largely incompetent) base stealer. Holding the team together is a veteran catcher, Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger, Eddie and the Cruisers), for whom the Indians are a final shot at playing in the majors again -- and his last shot at reuniting with his willowy librarian ex-girlfriend (Rene Russo, Lethal Weapon 3).
There's nothing particularly complex or deep about Major League. It's just a plain old baseball classic. It's simple, really. Major League is to baseball what Slap Shot is to hockey: quotable; rewatchable; an encapsulation of most (if not all) of what we love about the sport. The film single-handedly created the "closer entrance" thing that most MLB teams have these days. But then, you probably already know that. I have a feeling that the entire population of people who would likely enjoy Major League has probably already seen Major League. If so, you know what I'm talking about. If not, let me try and explain.
As mentioned above, Major League isn't deep. That doesn't mean it's stupid or poorly written, though. Believe it or not, this film was written by David S. Ward, who also wrote (and won an Academy Award for) The Sting. The story is a basic (and, frankly, cliched) rags-to-riches tale -- which is the filmmaking equivalent of wheat toast. Roughly 75 percent of all sports movies ever made follow this same formula. It doesn't bring any new twists to the genre, and you pretty much know exactly what's going to happen from the first note of Randy Newman's "Burn On" in the opening credits. Major League, though, is skillful and funny in the execution. The characters are vivid, the one-liners are sharp, and the story glides along at just the right pace. The required romance (between Jake and his ex) is the only road bump -- it feels a little forced -- but isn't fatal to the overall quality of the film. And, strangely, the cliched predictability of the film actually makes it more watchable. I had to watch it twice in the space of five days for this review, and I was just as drawn into the film the second time around as I was the first.
A significant strength of the film is its great cast. Berenger and Sheen, the biggest "name" actors in the cast, had recently worked together on Oliver Stone's Platoon, and wanted to do a film together that was a bit less serious than that. Bernsen was starring on the successful TV drama LA Law at the time, and was therefore also a familiar face to viewers. Snipes, Haysbert, and Russo were all newcomers, but wouldn't stay unknowns for long. The talent is there, for sure. What sets Major League apart, though, is how well the cast gels. The actors do a great job at making you feel like this is a team, not a bunch of Hollywood people playing baseball. Unlike some baseball films (which may or may not rhyme with "Full Gurham"), these guys actually hit, field, and throw like real baseball players. It's a lot easier to laugh at the comedy when you're not distracted by the fact that the phenom pitcher throws like a girl...
And then, of course, there's Uecker. In an inspired bit of wisdom, the makers of Major League drafted Milwaukee Brewers radio broadcaster Bob Uecker to play Harry Doyle, the team's broadcast voice. There's no acting going on here -- Uecker is just being himself. But as you know if you've ever seen one of his many talk show appearances, or his commercials, or heard him calling a baseball game, Uecker is hysterical. Half of his lines in this film have become staple quotes in the sports broadcast world. He's a film unto himself, but he does serve a vital role to the movie as a whole, providing exposition when necessary.
This Blu-ray edition is just the previously released "Wild Thing Edition" with a new HD transfer. The decent extras are identical to the previous DVD (and are presented in nonanamorphic standard definition, which was a bit annoying). The "making of" featurette, "My Kinda Team," does a good job of telling the film's back story, and has a surprising number of recent interviews with the original cast (only Wesley Snipes is absent). The "Major League Look at Major League" has some of the real-life 2007 Cleveland Indians discussing the film -- it's actually more interesting and entertaining that I expected. (Baseball fans will be completely unsurprised that Paul Byrd relates to Eddie Harris.) A feature commentary with writer Ward and producer Chris Chessler is low-key but informative. Finally, there's a featurette focused solely on Bob Uecker -- and you just can't get enough Uecker. A "tour" of Pedro Cerrano's locker and a still gallery round out the extras.
Major League was remastered for the "Wild Thing" edition release, and this HD transfer shows the result of that work. It's a markedly clear and crisp transfer, to the point that I was shocked when I remembered that this film is now 20 years old. The film itself doesn't have the sort of cinematography that shows off the capabilities of Blu-ray. The TrueHD 5.1 audio is pristine, but again, this isn't a film that will showcase your surround system. So Major League probably isn't a candidate for an HD upgrade replacement if you already own the standard definition "Wild Thing" edition. But if you don't already own the film, there's no reason not to get it on Blu-ray.
There's one big logical problem with Major League that bugs me every time I watch it. Why, after it becomes clear that the Indians aren't going to fall below the minimum attendance clause in their lease, does Rachel the evil owner still want the team to lose? At that point, her plan is shot -- she can't get out of the lease. However, she can profit if the team goes on and wins the World Series, right? So why isn't she pulling for that????
The answer is actually pretty simple, and is explained in the commentary: she was supposed to be pulling for them. The original ending had a twist: it turned out that Rachel was supporting the team all along. Everything she did was designed to keep the team out of bankruptcy, and to give them something to unite them (their common hatred of her). However, that ending tested poorly -- apparently, the test audiences wanted to keep hating Rachel. So the ending was hastily changed and reshot to make her nasty all the way through, even though it results in a logical inconsistency. (The scenes shot for the original ending are available as an extra feature.)
You're just not a real baseball fan if you don't have a copy of Major League somewhere in your dwelling. No matter what format you choose, you'll be giving the film a good workout in your player over the years. It's a good comedy with a lot of replay value that still feels fresh and funny 20 years down the line.
Juuuuuuust a bit outside.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternative Ending
* Photo Gallery