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Talent for the Game
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by Jack Sommersby

"Olmos Hits A Homer, the Film at Least a Double"
4 stars

Worthy of rediscovery.

In the engaging Talent for the Game Oscar-nominee Edward James Olmos gives his finest screen performance to date as Virgil Sweet, a veteran baseball talent scout for the California Angels whose money-hungry owner has deemed those in Virgil's profession an unnecessary expense, and it looks like Virgil, who hasn't found a superstar for the organization in years, fears his job is about to end. Virgil's been around - he used to be a player himself but wasn't quite good enough for a longtime career, but he loves the sport so much he's been happy to be behind the scenes recruiting those who possess the innate talent he just didn't have. Virgil drives across the country in his beat-up convertible scouting prospects in some of the unlikeliest of places, with one at the bottom of a coal mine where he takes pitches from a young man with a promising reputation in these parts; but after a series of throws Virgil kindly turns him down, saying the kid needs more seasoning. Virgil is an expert in his field, and so is Olmos. He made forceful impressions as the abrasive futuristic cop in Blade Runner, the superstitious Native American construction worker in Wolfen, the eccentric high-school math teacher in Stand and Deliver; here, playing a no-frills three-dimensional blue-collar character, he's relaxed and ingratiating, more than willing to underplay with the utmost confidence the camera will reach in and get his multi-faceted interpretation. Virgil is not a showy part, and it's to this masterful actor's considerable credit that Virgil remains vivid and identifiable throughout without ever indulging in attention-getting histrionics; Olmos suggests Virgil's rueful regret over a playing career that didn't materialize without ever going maudlin on us - he has such an ironclad grasp of this aging scout that every line reading, every expression, every tic rings alarmingly true and is a complete pleasure to take in.

Virgil does finally find a real discovery in the ace pitcher Sammy Bodeen (a touching Jeff Corbett) in farmland country a la Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs of 1984's The Natural; Sammy is golden-haired and innately altruistic with rock-solid moral principles, even hesitant about pitching in the majors being that he's perfectly content in his small town chock-full of good folks. But he does relent under Virgil's patient reasoning that, if not stardom, wouldn't he like the honor of playing against the best of the best? But as we see merely signing with a big club like the Angels isn't necessarily a guarantee of success, for Virgil knows Sammy needs training and confidence during practices before going up against professional athletes. Yet fighting Virgil every step of the way is the ball club's compunction-deprived new owner Gil Lawrence (a wonderfully smarmy Terry Kinney) who wants to exploit Virgil's new find as soon as possible while ignoring Virgil's insistence that Sammy isn't ready for his major-league debut despite Gil pouring money into huge billboards and media buys hyping him. Virgil despises how big money has polluted the game, with his boss's crass efforts to manipulate and market Sammy as "the next big thing" disgusting him, but he reluctantly accepts a sixty-thousand-a-year office job with the outfit for, one, economic security, and, two, to be around to offer access to Sammy and offer him tutelage. Talent for the Game is decidedly low-key, and that's a good deal of its charm - it doesn't sensationalize things, and I found the pro-sports politics a lot more interesting than, say, what John Sayles offered up three years prior in the lackluster Eight Men Out.

The movie is textured and observant much like the underrated independent baseball picture Pastime was, and like Ron Shelton's brilliant "Bull Durham" it doesn't hinge everything on the Big Game where the scoring outcome is all-important. Director Robert M. Young doesn't have a particularly persuasive visual sense, but he gets in and out of scenes well enough; and, with the input of three screenwriters credited, the dialogue is consistently piquant. Added to which, the usually-unbearable Lorraine Bracco, as Virgil's headstrong girlfriend, is acceptable for once, and the always-welcome Jamey Sheridan, as Virgil's sympathetic immediate supervisor, proves again he's one of the best character actors in the business. And holding everything together is that stalwart Olmos. Without him Talent of the Game would passable, nothing more; with this virtuoso front and center, however, it's a good deal more - a dramatically sound accomplishment with genuine gravitas.

Here's hoping for a Blu-Ray release with special features.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=9461&reviewer=327
originally posted: 10/22/20 05:13:09
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USA
  26-Apr-1991 (PG)

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