by Chris Parry
When a film stars Tom Selleck, audiences could be forgiven for thinking that the project will find its eventual home in the dollar bargain bin at the local clearance store. He's the kind of guy that you'd expect to find paired up with a monkey that plays basketball, or a wacky homeless guy who has to help an over the hill cop solve a crime, or Monica from Friends. He hasn't been A-list since Hawaiian shirts were chic, and it's not a stretch to suggest that he was never really A-list at all. Which makes it surprising that a formulaic sports film like this one can turn out to be such a pleasant experience.Selleck plays Jack Elliot, a struggling New York Yankees first baseman from the days when such a thing was financially possible. He's been struggling with the bat, he's getting unfit in his mid-30's, and there's a new kid on the block who looks like a good bet for next season. So when the boss calls jack into his office and let's him know that he's on the way out, the only real question is who would take him on?
"Sure, it stars Selleck, but it's actually one of the better baseball movies"
The answer to that is Japan. Thus begins a sort of Lost in Translation, early 90's style, or a Gung Ho on the baseball diamond, where all that really needs to happen for the film to progress is our hero needs to get himself in as many cultural jams as possible, while offending his hosts, making an ass out of himself, finding a woman who loves him for him, then knuckling down to win the big game. And no, those aren't spoilers. This is a sports movie. Spoliers don't exist for sports movies, because everything has been done eight hundred times before in eight hundred other sports movies. You can count the number of sports flicks where the hero doesn't hit the winning run or score the winning goal on one hand.
In this case, things aren't terminally formulaic, despite the simplistic concept, for a number of reasons. First, Selleck is actually really enjoyable to watch. He gives this character everything it needs to feel real, and even when he's losing his rag, he's doing it in a humorous way. It's hard not to laugh along when you can see the lead actor is kind of enjoying himself in the role.
The sports aspect of the film, often a forgotten element of movies of this ilk, is actually very strong in this case. Director Fred Schepisi, whose work you'd recall if you saw Russia House, A Cry in the Dark, and Roxanne, takes the film to a place where the baseball is stylized, mixed in with almost documentary-like footage of the game itself. The players sweat, the situations makes sense, and Jack's struggles at the plate are very well realized, surprisingly so considering Schepisi has no baseball background, having grown up in Australia.
Old faithful Japanese veteran Ken Takakura turns in a workmanlike performance as Jack's new Japanese manager, a man torn between saving face, winning games, and teaching the gruff impatient American what it takes to be a team player. You'd have to think that anytime a Japanese man has to play the American idea of a Japanese man, it must be hard to reconcile. Stereotypes abound, cliches drift in and out, and in the end the Japanese guy is usually taught to lighten up by the Yanks.
But while Schepisi certainly doesn't hide from the formula (Jack gives a Japanese guy a hotfoot - bwaha!), he also doesn't rely on it, mixing in just enough of a twist and a little dark humor, which leaves the whole thing feeling a lot less of a struggle than it ought to have been.If Mr Baseball were a team in the Major Leagues, it would be the Chicago Cubs; friendly, often successful, hard to dislike, but never likely to amount to much more than a .500 season. It's better than it should have been, but from the outset it was destined to never be able to aim any higher than exactly that level.
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originally posted: 03/05/04 15:33:05