"Wild Thing, you make my heart sing!"
Facts of the Case
The Cleveland Indians stink. They've stunk for years. But now there's a reason.
The Indians' owner has passed on to that big luxury box in the sky, and his golddigging Vegas showgirl widow Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton, The Secret of My Success) wants to uproot the Tribe from the banks of Lake Erie and transplant them to sunny Miami. One problem: the only way to break the club's stadium lease is for attendance to take a rapid swan dive. So Rachel populates the latest edition of the Fighting Braves of the Cuyahoga with a sampler plate of leftovers from the clubhouse postgame spread, including:
• Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger, Platoon, Sniper), a washed-up catcher with arthritic knees seeking one final grab at the brass ring.
• Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes, who'd next lace up his spikes as a thinly veiled Barry Bonds clone in The Fan), a centerfielder who "plays like Mays and runs like Hayes," but hits like he's in a daze.
• Rick Vaughn, AKA "The Wild Thing" (Charlie Sheen, Berenger's Platoon co-star), a myopic hurler and former carjacker, late of the California Penal League.
• Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert, who would continue the ballpark motif opposite Tom Selleck in Mr. Baseball and later be elected President on 24), a glowering Cuban expatriate with a voodoo shrine in his locker.
• Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen, TV's L.A. Law), a one-time All-Star third baseman now interested only in his mutual fund portfolio and his million-dollar face.
• Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross, The Majestic), a crotchety veteran pitcher whose secrets to continued success include Crisco, motor oil, and certain viscous bodily excretions.
Under the leadership of management retread (literally—he's most recently been managing a tire dealership) and 30-year minor league skipper Lou Brown (James Gammons, later Don Johnson's borderline senile dad on TV's Nash Bridges), the Sons of Chief Wahoo have only one hope of avoiding permanent relegation to the scrap heap: win the American League pennant.
Baseball is the most cinematic of sports. Only boxing even comes close. Football plays best on television, where multiple camera angles and endless replays forge majesty out of the game's inherent chaos. But baseball, a game best appreciated in person, flourishes on the big screen, where its pastoral splendor and mythic qualities have room to resonate.
Filmmakers figured this out long ago. Hence, Hollywood has churned out more movies about baseball than all other sports combined—some great (The Natural, Bull Durham), some near-great (Eight Men Out, Bang the Drum Slowly, 61*), some sappy (For the Love of the Game, The Rookie), some incredibly lame (Angels in the Outfield, Rookie Of The Year, the execrable Ed). And then there's Major League, which at various points is all of the above.
First, the great: the performances. With one glaring exception we'll discuss later, all of the actors are outstanding here. I mean, this isn't Shakespeare, it's slight and rather broad comedy. But everyone seems to have a good time and manages to keep his or her character believable within the bounds of a ludicrous plot. A young Wesley Snipes shines as an energetic con artist who fast-talks himself onto the team. Dennis Haysbert, in his first major film appearance, steals several scenes as the superstitious slugger Cerrano. Mr. Belvedere's boss Bob Uecker (in real life the radio voice of the Milwaukee Brewers) essentially plays himself as the Indians' loquacious play-by-play announcer Harry Doyle, but he's a riot throughout. Even Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger, thespians as substantial as my mother's world-famous cream-cheese-and-Jell-O mold, deliver solid goods here. (Sheen, in fact, has never been better than he is as the spaced-out "Wild Thing," who, unless I miss my guess, is really Jennifer Grey's juvenile-delinquent suitor from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, a few years and a few more crimes down the road.) Just for good baseball karma, a couple of real-life major leaguers appear in tiny roles: former Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Pete Vuckovich shows up as the New York Yankees' star hitter, and ex-Dodgers backstop Steve Yeager (the man responsible for the catcher's mask throat protector) cameos as an Indians coach.
Next, the near-great: the baseball. Major League plays fast and loose with reality, but its behind-the-scenes clubhouse camaraderie feels as much like a real baseball team as any film that isn't Bull Durham. The recurring slice-of-life sequences showing everyday Indians fans gradually warming to the plucky reject squad sound like banter I've swapped with fellow fans innumerable times. And the filmmakers—in spite of themselves, perhaps—get most of the nuts and bolts of the sport right, particularly the ambience.
The sappy: the tedious subplot with Berenger's Jake valiantly trying to reclaim his castoff girlfriend Lynn, played by Rene Russo in her first film role. Russo is radiant, and shows flashes of the talent that would blossom later in her career in such films as Get Shorty and The Thomas Crown Affair. But this warmed-over love story—Robert Redford and Glenn Close did the girl-left-behind business better in The Natural—belongs in another, less raucous movie. It isn't interesting, it steals screen time from the ballplayers, and it gets in the way of the laughs.
The incredibly lame: What producer at Paramount owed Corbin Bernsen's agent a favor to shoehorn the erstwhile Arnie Becker into this movie? Bernsen's smug, hammy acting style was always the worst thing about L.A. Law (that is, until the show's scriptwriters decided to abandon all pretense of verisimilitude), and he's even more irritating here. Part of the problem is his thinly written character, but the bottom line is that Bernsen—his George Hamiltonesque chiseled and tanned features aside—is a walking Monte Cristo sandwich: all ham, deep fried in oil, with a fat slice of cheese. (Here's a nagging question: what happened to the actress who plays Bernsen's wife, and why hasn't she ever made another film?)
Blended all together, though, the wheat here outweighs the chaff. The paper-thin plot would blow away in a stiff wind, but writer/director David Ward (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Sting and directed—but didn't write—the underrated submarine comedy Down Periscope) packs it with enough slyly funny jokes to hold our interest. Ward keeps the proceedings moving briskly (almost too briskly—it's virtually impossible to follow the Indians' season as it progresses), and his terrific cast keeps us chuckling. Ward wasn't going to bag another gold statuette for this effort, but Willie Stargell of the "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates would have given him a gold star.
Paramount affords Major League all the consideration it lavishes on most of its older catalog titles: next to none. The anamorphic transfer is acceptable but not great, showing a surprising amount of grain and minor print flaws, and is loaded with edge enhancement. The picture displays a sharp, bright color palette, but looks gauzy in spots. Credit Paramount this much—previous releases of Major League on VHS were pan-and-scan, so at least they got the aspect ratio right at long last.
The audio presentation equals the video, which is to say that it's okay, but just okay. I didn't notice anything going on in the surrounds, even though the film was remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 especially for the DVD release. Then again, this is a dialogue-heavy comedy, not an action thriller, so we won't hammer this point too hard. There's a French dub track, and for some unknown reason, Paramount also included the original English stereo soundtrack. (Most likely so they could respond to my next point with the retort, "What do you mean, no extras?")
Ah yes, extras. A word which, in the Paramount Pictures lexicon, is translated from the ancient Greek root meaning "not on your life, bub." Though once again, the folks on Snowy Mountain note on the cover art that the "special features are not rated." It's a tad difficult to rate what doesn't exist, guys. When one considers the persistent popularity of this movie, and the number of its stars who went on to impressive film careers, it's a shame Paramount didn't invest a few simoleons in supplemental material. But then, when it comes to DVD, Paramount is one studio that still isn't Major League.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Because Hollywood can't resist milking a cash cow dry, Major League spawned a pair of inferior sequels.
The tepid but relatively inoffensive Major League II returned director Ward and most of the principal actors, except Russo and Snipes (Omar Epps from Scream 2 and Love And Basketball assumed the role of Willie Mays Hayes; Lynn the trophy girlfriend disappeared altogether). The brutal hackwork Major League: Back to the Minors teamed holdovers Bernsen, Haysbert and the ubiquitous Bob Uecker with Scott Bakula (TV's Quantum Leap and Enterprise) and a no-talent writer/director named John Warren, and is an utter embarrassment.
I recall not liking Major League much when I first saw it in theatrical release a dozen years ago. Coming as it did on the heels of the two greatest baseball movies ever produced, the purist in me scorned its good-natured goofiness and its irreverent approach to the grand old game. But the film has grown on me over time, and I found myself laughing—a lot—as I watched it afresh on DVD.
Taken for what it is, Major League is harmless, hilarious fun. As a baseball fan, I enjoyed its wacky but respectful spin on the sport of Ruth, Mays (but not Hayes), and all the Robinsons—Jackie, Frank, and Brooks. A classic? Maybe not. But you make worse use of two hours. Like watching the real-life Cleveland Indians.
The Court throws four wide ones and awards Major League a free pass. Paramount is sentenced to front row seats at next season's Cleveland-Detroit series for once again leaving the extra content in the clubhouse. (Is very bad to steal Jobu's supplements.) We're adjourned.
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