Bull Durham

(1988) *** 1/2 R
115 min. Orion Pictures. Director: Ron Shelton. Cast: Susan Sarandon, Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl.

/content/films/3820/1.jpgRon Shelton's Bull Durham routinely tops lists of the best sports and best baseball movies, competing for honors with star Kevin Costner's other iconic baseball picture Field of Dreams. The directorial debut of established screenwriter Shelton (Under Fire, The Best of Times) made him a fixture on the Hollywood map for the decade to follow, though he would remain best known for his sports-themed films, including White Men Can't Jump, Tin Cup (again with Costner), The Great White Hype, Play It to the Bone, and Cobb, about the dark side of one of baseball's most famous figures. Bull Durham deserves its status among sports films, but its ongoing appeal reflects that it's something more: an old-fashioned romantic comedy that succeeds in establishing and deepening memorable characters through memorably flavorful dialogue.

Using his own minor-league days as inspiration, Shelton spins a story of small-time strivers yearning to make it to "the Big Show," a.k.a. Major League Baseball. Refreshingly, Shelton hands over the film's point of view to a woman: Susan Sarandon's Annie Savoy. The film's narrator admits to worshipping at the Church of Baseball, practicing her religion by seasonally selecting one player on the Durham Bulls to be her boy of summer (Indelible though it may be, Bull Durham is one of those nonsensical dyslexic titles, but never mind.). The lucky winner of Annie's selection process gets not only lovin' from Annie but the benefit of her savvy coaching. Particularly for her time and the genre, Annie was a winningly complex character, and she remains so. Unabashedly sexual on her own terms, Annie's brashness covers for a forlornness, but even if she finds love, she'll never be just somebody's woman; this part-time professor is defined by her triple-play passion for baseball, men, and poetry.

Annie quickly winnows her "draft picks" down to two: dim-bulb pitcher Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins)--who she nicknames "Nuke"--and "Crash" Davis (Costner), the newly arrived catcher reluctantly serving as LaLoosh's mentor and watchdog. Nuke's a hot prospect while Crash's career seems to be nearing its end; while Crash remains a solid batter (nearing a minor-league home-run record that's somehow remained a secret) with enough experience to parlay the end of his playing days into a coaching career, he's irked at constantly having to prove himself amid a sea of young bucks. His frustrations are only compounded by Annie's dating game, which Nuke wins somewhat by default. But as the season progresses, Annie's interest in Crash doesn't fade but grows. After all these years, might she break her own rules?

Shelton's Oscar-nominated screenplay is partly distinguished by its verbosity: Annie's witty narration, Robert Wuhl's hyper-verbal pitching coach, and trailer-ready rants (like Costner's affirmation "I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days"). Shelton also gets at the agony and the ecstasy in the life of a ball player, always chasing the highs and dreading the inevitable lows. And he has a Freudian interest in the sexuality of the sport of bats and balls: what Annie pegs as "latent homosexuality," the relationship between sexual performance and competition off the field and athletic performance and competition on it (Annie loosens Nuke up by ordering him to under-dress a garter), and the defensive masculinity that ironically shares head space with the "Peter Pan syndrome."

Surprisingly, the Durham Bulls are the actual minor league team of Durham, North Carolina; since producer Thom Mount was a co-owner of the team, the production shot on location. Of course, Shelton comically exaggerates the relative shabbiness of minor-league ball, but the picture palpably benefits from the location work, authentic touches like the appearance of "Clown Prince of Baseball" Max Patkin, and Shelton's hands-on experience. The fine ensemble includes Trey Wilson as the Bulls' frustrated coach, William O'Leary as faith-based player Jimmy, and Jenny Robertson as oversexed groupie Millie. Bull Durham may be one of a handful of quintessential baseball pictures, but it's certainly the only one to feature a bondage scene in which Sarandon reads Walt Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric" to future longtime companion Robbins.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; Dolby Digital 2.0

Street date: 8/3/2010

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

MGM gives Bull Durham its hi-def debut in a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD special edition combo pack. The upgrade in picture quality may not be dramatic (this is a film that has always looked grainy and always should), but the transfer excels in color rendering and eschews digital tinkering on the way to becoming the best-yet home-video presentation of the film. Admittedly, the results are still on the soft side, but that can mostly be chalked up to the source material. In audio, the Blu-ray offers a lossless but front-heavy DTS-HD Master Audio mix that nicely prioritizes the dialogue: a good idea for this winningly talky comedy.

The sole extra on the Blu-ray disc is the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:49, HD), but the DVD disc included is the 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition loaded up with bonus features. These include an audio commentary from director Ron Shelton and an audio commentary from Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins. Not surprisingly, the Shelton one's the more engaging track, with the writer-director explaining his real-life inspirations, recalling the production, and even copping to what he considers to be a weakness or two. By contrast, the celebrity track fails to keep up a steady stream of interesting recollections and perspectives, with Costner and Robbins instead leaving sizeable gaps as they fall into the trap of re-watching the film.

"The Greatest Show on Dirt" (19:21, SD) recalls the film's development and production, as well as addressing the film's ongoing status in the hearts of baseball fans. Participants include Shelton, Sports Cinema: 100 Movies author Randy Williams, L.A. Dodgers broadcaster Charley Steiner, Philadelphia Phillies coach Steve Smith, William O'Leary, Fresno Grizzlies catcher Justin Knoedler, Fresno Grizzlies first baseman Lance Niekro, Las Vegas 51s catcher Ken Huckaby, and Jenny Robertson.

"Diamonds in the Rough" (15:53, SD) gives a bit of historical perspective and looks at life in the modern minor leagues, interviewing players, employers and fans of the Las Vegas 51s and the Fresno Grizzlies.

Making-of featurette "Between the Lines: The Making of Bull Durham" (29:16, SD) gathers Shelton, Costner (vintage and contemporary), Sarandon, Robbins, Robert Wuhl, Robertson, producer Thom Mount, former Bulls owner Miles Wolff, former Bulls stadium manager and groundskeeper Bill Miller, and former Bulls players Wes Currin and Theron Todd to offer their recollections about production and/or the film's accuracy in representing minor-league ball.

"Kevin Costner Profile" (2:09, SD) and "Sports Wrap" (2:57, SD) hail from the original promotional EPK and consist of many film clips, a bit of B-roll, and brief interviews with Costner, Sarandon, Shelton, minor and major league star Jay Johnstone.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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