Judge Ryan Keefer wonders how you can file for Social Security while still being considered a rookie.
"Red, it took me 16 years to get here. You play me, and I'll give ya the best I got."
Baseball remains a vital sport for our cinematic love and affection, and most of our greatest sports films center around the action on the diamond. And The Natural has taken a spot not only as one of the best sports films of the last two decades, but perhaps the one of the best sports films overall. And after an initial 2001 release that was light on extras, Sony has included some more extras on a second disc and a few director-approved cinematic nips and tucks just in time for Opening Day 2007. So is this director's cut worthy of the proverbial double dip?
Facts of the Case
Many of you have probably seen the film before, but I'll try and sum it up without revealing many spoilers; Phil Dusenberry and Roger Towne (The Recruit) adapted the novel and Barry Levinson (Rain Man) directed, and they tell the story of Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford, Ordinary People), a young pitcher who travels on a train to a major league tryout. He runs into "The Whammer" (Joe Don Baker, Goldeneye), a character not unlike Babe Ruth in recognition, bravado and physical appearance. What follows is a cascade of events that take Roy down paths he couldn't have imagined.
Sixteen years later, a older and more private Roy comes to New York to play for the New York Knights, a team managed by Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley, Cocoon), who is involved in a battle for control of the team by a character known only as The Judge (Robert Prosky, The Lords of Discipline), who intends for Roy's signing to be of further detriment to the club, so he can gain full control of the team and do whatever he wishes with it. Roy plays as best as he can, for himself and for the game, in the hope that maybe people will still walk down the street and say "there goes Roy Hobbs, the best that ever was," when they pass by him.
Wow, it's been a while since I've seen this film from beginning to end! Like most of you, I saw this film and concentrated on the beyond-normal abilities that Roy possessed. Who else wanted to hit a home run that could break the clock on a stadium, or throw lightning fast pitches over the plate? If you're not nodding your head in agreement, you're insulting me and lying to yourself. But in seeing the film for this review, it's remarkable to see how one's perceptions of it can change. For me, it's definitely become more of a look at a man's quest to overcome his own personal demons to realize a dream he's had since childhood. That might be considered a slide to skepticism on my part, but the gameplay sequences still remain impressive and can put a dent into this crusty old man's psyche.
And the gameplay is believable because the casting and performances are perfect. Redford looks the part and makes you forget about the issues with age because the ability is there. Unlike Anthony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out, Redford can play baseball, and that's a good thing. As Hobbs' friend from home, Iris, Glenn Close (nominated as Best Supporting Actress in the role) plays her as one who holds a muted connection with Roy, but stays out of his life because she has more important things to be a part of. When she realizes she still has feelings for him, it's not the swooning type of female behavior in other films; their attraction is mutual, as any long-lost friends who may have feelings for one another would still have. Brimley as Pop and Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story) as Red are the typical older mentors to their players, and their chemistry together is just as fantastic as it is when they are in scenes with other individuals. Baker as "The Whammer" might not be on screen long, but he's probably the best Babe Ruth who never officially played Babe Ruth. Oh, keep an eye out for another Oscar winner as well in Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), who plays the scheming reporter Max Mercy, along with great supporting performances by Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential), Michael Madsen (Kill Bill) and Darren McGavin (A Christmas Story), who is outstanding in an uncredited appearance.
This new director's cut is only six minutes longer than the original version of the film, however there have been some things pulled and more added so that approximately 15 minutes of new footage has been incorporated into this cut. Disc One holds the film and can be played with or without the introduction by Levinson, who shares his thoughts on the film as it looks now, which he says is truer to what he wanted to do than at the time of the film's release. This new release of the film infuses a lot more of Roy's childhood, notably footage of him at his boyhood home as an adult, a home that has long since been vacated. His tryout appears to be more concrete from what I remembered, as he's going to see if the Chicago Cubs want his skills. The relationship with Iris is given more of an arc, showing them as kids and just before the tryout, with a scene that helps make the origins of Iris' son even clearer. The early stuff appears to be given the most attention, there doesn't appear to be much that's changed in the later scenes when Roy was in the majors, save for a quick scene where Max is made to be even more of a ruthless reporter from the jump of Roy's majors debut. However, for full disclosure's sake, I'm going by memory on this as it's been a virtual coon's age since I last saw the original theatrical cut.
Considering that this cut pulled footage from several different sources, it appears to still be in pretty good shape. There are some close-ups that appear to be a little bit on the worn side, but everything looks fine and has retained a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that received cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's (The Passion of the Christ) seal of approval. A new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack has been done for this release (eschewing the 4.0 Surround release on the theatrical edition) and it's enveloping in a subtle way. The last scene seems to employ some enhanced (read: manufactured) sounds not present on the theatrical version, but like I said earlier, it's been awhile since I've sat down to watch it.
At least there are a whole slew of extras on Disc Two to mull over, right? Well, starting off you've got "When Lightning Strikes," which is a three-part, 50-minute look at the making of the film. Part one covers the book's origins, and Malamud's daughter discusses her recollections of him along with some biographical information on the author. Specifically on the book, fans of it talk about the real-life inspirations that paralleled the book, such as Ted Williams, not to mention the Black Sox scandal. In Part two, the focus is more on how the book came to life on film, and Dusenberry, a real-life advertising executive, talks about how he worked with Towne one summer, along with pitching an ad campaign to a fledgling company named Apple. There is a lot of participation and new interviews with the cast and crew, along with some fans of the book and the sport (read: Bob Costas and George Will). The challenge to cast actors that were convincing athletes is covered, and a lot of rehearsal footage and on-set stills photos accompany it. Part three covers the production itself, the filming, post-production and those cast and crew participants share their memories on set, and Newman pitches in some interview time, and the piece wraps up with everyone's thoughts on the film itself. I was almost expecting a little more, but this wasn't too shabby. From there, the "Extra Innings" section is essentially footage that didn't make the first feature, there are four segments, two of which should probably have been thrown into it, the third is an interesting look at a game with then-star Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg that gave him a Natural-esque nickname, and a fourth that examined then-President Reagan's interest in the film. Altogether there are an additional eight minutes on the impact of the film.
Moving on, "Clubhouse Conversations" is a 15-minute look at the fascination of the sport by many of the same participants from the earlier piece along with some baseball players of the current (and previous) era as they recall their first memories playing the sport they love. "A Natural Gunned Down" tells the story of Eddie Waitkus, an athlete who shunned a Harvard education to be a baseball player for the Philadelphia Phillies. Nicknamed "The Natural," he was shot by a female stalker (the first recognized case of celebrity stalking in the country) and his story is one of the parallels for Malamud's novel, and gets a biographical piece discussing his life larger than the headlines. Waitkus' life is very intriguing (he was a World War II vet with four Bronze Stars before this happened also), and it would be nice to see a film made on his life at some point down the road. "Knights in Shining Armor" tackles the mythological aspects revolving around the story, and in "The Heart of The Natural" Levinson and perennial All-Star (not to mention recent Hall of Famer), Cal Ripken Jr. appear to discuss how important the film is on the professional and personal aspects. It remains a pretty effective supplement.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Do the changes help bring the film a little closer to Bernard Malamud's novel? Well, apparently only in the sense that Roy may be a marginally darker and more private character, and that's about it. Otherwise, a commentary with Redford (who seems to be doing more and more of them lately) and/or Levinson would have been the crowning achievement for the disc.
The Natural remains one of the nicest, most pleasant sports films for good reason. From a completist side of things, this two-disc set does not include the theatrical cut, so depending on your point of view, this may be an addition to the catalog without replacing the one you already have. Perhaps it's being saved for some Ultimate Edition down the road, but if you haven't picked up this disc and you're a fan of sports films, what are you waiting for?
Swing away Mr. Hobbs, the court finds you not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Director Barry Levinson
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