Judge Daniel MacDonald always wears a cup when reviewing sports movies. Because, well, you never know...
A Comedy With Bats and Balls
A classic, oft-quoted sports picture Major League has held a place in the hearts of baseball fans, baseball players, and people who like funny movies since it hit theatres in 1989. It's got a solid cast—featuring the big screen debut of model-turned-actress Rene Russo (Get Shorty) and Dennis Haysbert (Jarhead)—a bevy of sharp one-liners, and lots of exciting baseball action. Now it's been double-dipped as Major League: Wild Thing Edition—is it worth upgrading from the 2002 DVD release?
Facts of the Case
As established in the melancholy opening credits sequence, the Cleveland Indians haven't won a division title in more than 30 years. So it's not especially surprising that the team's new owner Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton, The Man Without A Face) wants to accept an offer to move the team to Miami. Unfortunately for her, there's a standing contract with the city. Exploiting a clause that allows her to break the contract if attendance falls beneath a certain level, she assembles a ragtag group of has-been, washout players who seem destined to finish at the bottom of the league.
The players, led by catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger, Sniper), have other plans. Against all odds, they each overcome their individual challenges to become a pretty good ball club. But the more they succeed, the tougher Phelps makes things on the team. Can they defy their owner and triumph, or will they play into her hands?
Charlie Sheen was at the height of his dramatic acting career when he played Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn in Major League, attracting lots of attention as the naïve, sincere Chris Taylor in Platoon (also with Berenger), and strong turns in Young Guns, Wall Street, and Eight Men Out. He wasn't known for his natural comic timing and low-key delivery, and so it was a bit surprising for him to show up in a broad comedy like this, but he delivers a fine, funny take on the bespectacled ex-con pitcher with ridiculous hair. Over the next two years his six (!) films were alternating comedies and action/dramas. Major League, on the strength of its script and direction, brought out a lot of unexpected talent in its cast.
This is the type of sports film we rarely see anymore—it's filled with coarse language and rude gestures, and the baseball scenes feature the actors really making the plays without the assistance of digital enhancement. The games feel real, especially in front of live crowds of up to 25,000 extras, and these guys really know how to play—young Wesley Snipes (Blade) improbably leaping against the wall to rob a home run from the Yankees is as thrilling as if it happened in an actual game, if not more so. The filmmakers benefited greatly from the natural abilities of Berenger, Sheen (who could throw an 88 mile-per-hour fastball), and Haysbert, but also from the dedication and commitment of actors like Snipes, who had never before played ball but learned how to consistently hit pop-ups as a part of the character.
The language is almost shocking by today's standards set by Disney's recent run of otherwise excellent true-life sports tales, but adds an authenticity to the locker room talk and the players' bravado, making the movie all the more loveable. On the audio commentary, writer/director David S. Ward (The Program) questions whether the language should've been left so raw, but I doubt Major League would've become such a lasting favorite otherwise.
Many of the film's great quotables, including Sportscenter favorite, "Just a bit outside," come from hard-drinking commentator Harry Doyle, played indelibly by real-life announcer Bob Uecker. He sets and maintains the tone of the picture, remaining positive about his team's performance nearly all of the time, no matter what. This is another departure from the template of today's sports film, as there is no scene of fans turning on their home team, no rookie for the team to exclude until he "proves his worth," and limited infighting in general. The audience's scorn is reserved exclusively for the team owner; the players are presented as hard working and dedicated, and no matter how poor their game performance is they're worthy of respect. The one player who does hold back, the soon-to-be-retired Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen, The Great White Hype) who's looking to preserve his body rather than sacrifice to make plays, quickly realizes that the nature of the team demands even he leaves it all on the field.
There's a point being made about the working class, their work ethic and spirit, overcoming the attitudes of the wealthy like Phelps and Dorn. It's set up during the opening credits, with shots of factories and harbors around Cleveland's baseball stadium, and is furthered throughout the picture. In the world of Major League, it doesn't matter how you look, what you believe, or even, to an extent, how good a baseball player you are, as long as you try to improve and don't let down your team—that's the highest virtue, and when a character gets it, like Dorn does, success is within reach, while Phelps is destined to fail because of her insular arrogance. It's not overdone, but the subtext is clearly a point the filmmakers intended to make.
Paramount has done another standout job on an older title with this "Wild Thing Edition," The picture is nearly flawless, sharp and clear, looking more like a period piece made today than a movie from the 80s. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack fills the room with James Newton Howard's (Collateral) lively score and the occasional song, and made better use of the surround channels than many remastered films from the before the digital sound era. Kudos on the technical specs.
The special features offer a fitting tribute to the popular film as well, with a 25 minute making-of featurette, a second with real major league players speaking about the movie's authenticity and likeability, and a third on sportscaster Bob Uecker. Of particular interest is the alternate ending, completely changing the meaning of the film. I won't spoil it, but it came as quite a surprise. The audio commentary with Ward and producer Chris Chesser is laid-back but chatty, with plenty of insider trivia for fans.
But the greatest thing going for this release, in my mind, is the packaging: it's got real Astroturf on the outer box. That's right sports fans, Astroturf. Tres cool.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Given how bad the players are when they show up for spring training, and the movie's overall commitment to authenticity, it would've been nice to see a more gradual progression to the winning team the Indians are by the time they reach the final game. Sure, the all-powerful montage gives us the idea, but an extra ten minutes or so of bad baseball would've been a worthwhile tweak.
Major League is one of my all time favorite sports films, along with Tin Cup and Any Given Sunday, and stands up surprisingly well today. Costuming aside, it's a timeless, simple story committed to its R rating yet always good-natured. If you don't already have this in your collection, or if you do and are interested in the special features, I highly recommend picking it up.
It's a home run! (I'm sure I'm the first critic to say that.) Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Director David S. Ward and Producer Chris Chesser
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