Bull Durham

January 23, 2012

Sex and sports. Are these the crucial issues for human existence?

Possibly, and they certainly are important to Ron Shelton, a screenwriter who makes his directorial bow with Bull Durham.

Shelton wrote the script for The Best of Times (1986), a delightful little movie about marriage and football. In Bull Durham, he combines some man-woman stuff with a loving look at minor league baseball. The result is one of the most likable debuts in recent memory.

The movie is introduced by Annie (Susan Sarandon), a team follower who annually chooses one young member of the minor league Durham Bulls to—ah—guide and comfort during the season. For her, baseball is spiritual business (she notes that a baseball has 108 stitches and a rosary has 108 beads). This season, she’s chosen a rangy rookie pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins, recently seen as Jodie Foster’s protector in Five Corners), a kid with a cannon arm who’d rather fool around then concentrate on baseball. She gives him her “life wisdom” and a much-needed nickname, “Nuke.”

But then someone else arrives to help bring the kid along. Veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) joins the club to help the pitcher prepare for the majors (or “The Show”) in baseball talk). Crash is one of those guys who’ve bounced around the minors forever, or, as he says when he arrives in the clubhouse, “I’m the player to be named later.”

It doesn’t take long before Annie and Crash are sensing some mutual interest. But Annie has certain standards: “I am, within the framework of the baseball season, monogamous,” she says, so Crash must put up with her reluctance and with Nuke’s rowdiness.

The film bops around in a slightly shapeless but always agreeable way. Shelton’s work is recognizably that of a first-time director; there’s an extraneous line of dialogue here, an uncomfortable camera angle there. But for the most part his keen eye for human behavior carries the day.

Individual scenes click: Crash advises Nuke that “Clichés are your friends,” when it comes to answering bland post-game interviews, and provides a litany of examples; the players, who want a day off, induce a rainout by sneaking into the ballpark at night and turning on the sprinklers; and Annie creates her version of foreplay by tying Nuke to the bed and reading poetry to him (Annie: “Do you know Walt Whitman?” Nuke: “Who’s he play for?”)

Shelton’s got a good head for the feel and talk of baseball (there are some nifty, funny interior monologues that focus on what goes through a player’s mind when he is standing in the batter’s box or on the pitcher’s mound). It’s absolutely germane that this story is set in the minor leagues; as in The Best of Times, Shelton seems most interested in those characters who haven’t quite made it, and never will. That element lends Bull Durham a poignancy that never leaves the film, even when it’s at its flakiest.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The movie sure was welcome at the time, I’ll say that for it. Shelton seems to have become disenchanted with movies, or they with him, or something; I’m not sure what explains Hollywood Homicide, his last completed feature, which was a real bust on all counts.


The Untouchables

November 9, 2011

For all its explicit violence and mayhem, there’s something gloriously old-fashioned about The Untouchables. Not just because it recalls the Robert Stack television show; not even because it’s set in 1930 and evokes memories of hard-bitten Warner Bros. gangster movies.

No, The Untouchables is old-fashioned in more crucial and meaningful ways. It has the simplicity, for instance, to suggest that might doesn’t necessarily make right, and that a small band of men on the side of good may triumph. These days it takes a lot of gumption to support ideas like those, and The Untouchables has gumption in excess.

Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is the Treasury agent who rides into 1930s Chicago like a cowboy determined to rid the town of its black-hatted villain. The villain, of course, is “Scarface” Al Capone (Robert De Niro), who rules the city utterly, and has much of the police department in his deep pockets.

So Ness forms his own troupe of men: Malone (Sean Connery), a wise old-timer who tutors Ness in the Chicago ways; Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a Treasury accountant who studiously discovers that the blood-spattered Capone might be tripped up on a tax-evasion charge; and Stone (Andy Garcia), a young Italian sharpshooter.

The film delivers this investigation through a series of tit-for-tat encounters between Ness and Capone, a bloody citywide war that eventually has no limits. The playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) has written characters and dialogue that manage to be fresh while conforming to historical facts (and certain Hollywood traditions).

And he layers the movie’s straight-forwardness with some ironies; for instance, that the law Ness was defending, Prohibition, was a bad idea, which allowed organized crime to take over in the first place. And Mamet doesn’t shrink from the fact that Ness’s tactics begin to resemble those of the very men he’s sworn to put away.

Choosing Brian De Palma to direct Mamet’s script was a brilliant stroke. De Palma has already cut his teeth on the operatic crime film (his Scarface was actually an update of the 1932 film based on Capone). De Palma and cinematographer Stephen Burum find the kind of clean, unfussy period look that the material demands.

Yet when opportunity presents itself, De Palma is capable of taking wing. Two set pieces stand out: Ness’s men charging across the countryside on horseback to seize a shipment of illegal hooch, and a delirious sequence in a train station involving Ness’s capture of Capone’s bookkeeper in a furious crossfire. De Palma’s thrilling staging of these scenes marks a new virtuosity in his work.

A slew of good performances, too: Costner does well with the difficult task of keeping straight-arrow Ness interesting; Connery is marvelous in a role he inhabits with warmth and authority; Billy Drago contributes a chilling cameo as hit man Frank Nitti. De Niro, who replaced Bob Hoskins as Capone, is effective as usual, never more so than in a stirring speech about baseball that ends in his Louisville Slugger connecting with the skull of an incompetent underling. It’s a whole new suggestion of the true American pastime.

First published in the Herald, June 3, 1987

I recall how satisfying this movie was when it came along; it didn’t have to be great, it was just so very good. Which meant a lot in 1987. A prequel has been rumored for a while, and I have a strong feeling somebody’s going to remake this soon, and probably not stray far from the Mamet screenplay.


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