A couple of years ago, I got the idea to start a Top 50 Sports Movie list, because I love movies, I love sports and, dammit, I love lists. (See this and this and this). I knew I'd take my sweet time moving it along, but at this rate, I'll finish sometime around my 87th birthday or 3rd liver transplant from the Bob Devaney/Mickey Mantle Wing of the UN Med Center. Where I'll complain about the food and be blamed for the horrifying sexual misconduct of my roommate, Cobby (@CobbyNation - check him out on Twitter, you'll see what I mean)
Anyway, the list thus far has covered youth hockey, cycling and sailing, so it's more than time to get to an item on the list that is from a Big 3 American sport - baseball.
And in a move that is sure to anger some by being so low and others by being on the list at all, Robert Redford and The Natural make their debut at #47. We'll get to both skewering and loving Roy Hobbs in a moment, but let's first go to a mini-segment. I have done Great Movies That Aren't Really Sports Movies, Movies That Just Missed the List & Overall Cosgroves (Movies I deem to be utter shit). Let's add the next category which is one I call Movies That Are So Bad They're Wonderful. Leading off this category is a true American Classic:
OVER THE TOP
Most sports fans were unaware that in the backrooms of Flying J's all across the country, there was a highly competitive underground arm rassling circuit that had more wagering than a day at Churchill Downs. Unaware, that is, until Sly Rocky Stallone came out with this masterpiece that still finds its way to cable outlets even today.
The rundown: The Rock left his ex-wife and infant son because Grandpa Robert Loggia, who was such a wonderful father figure in An Officer & a Gentleman, was a pain in the ass. Now she's dying and thinks Rock and their brat should take a bonding trip home from military school in the Rock's beat-up old semi. She fails to mention that this might be the most punchable and contemptible little shit in movie history since Scout Finch. If Sly had thrown him out the door doing 75mph and ended the movie at the 25 minute mark, the audience would have understood.
But instead we get some plot - father & son start getting to know each other again while listening to Kenny Loggins, Robert Loggia, of course, schemes to get the kid for himself, ex-wife keeps dying then dies, blah frickety blah blah - and then it's on to Vegas baby!, where they flip the soundtrack from K-Log to Sammy Hagar, so it must be time for World Arm Rasslin' Championships!!
Sly wants to win a new truck and win back his douchetard offspring that he signed over to Gramps Loggia. He did this no questions asked before the tournament because not doing so would have failed to advance the plotline of the little snotrag putting on some tight white slacks and running to join him via car theft and airline stowaway. In the meantime, Stallone's mopping up in Sin City by destroying a bunch of motor oil drinkers, face slappers, cigarette eaters and screamers who outweigh him by about 184 lbs per man on average and look like they could all break his arm with their pinkies. This includes another trucker the size of Gilbert Brown who has induced piss stains on Sly every time he's come within 100 yards of him.
Come the final showdown,Sly gets the motivation to beat white Gilbert after the kid attempts a speech that literally made me want to tear his head off like one of those True Blood vampires and throw it in acid. But of course Stallone wins cash, truck and kid. This movie is literally so off-the-wall ridiculous that I still love it today.
And also, it has gratuitous Terry Funk scenes. It's a treasure. And speaking of corny endings, it is time for Mr. Hobbs to entertain us:
#47 - The Natural
As I hinted above, this is one that split critics and moviegoers alike over the years. I thought the cinematography was some of the best ever. I thought Redford looked the part of an athlete despite being about 50 leatherfaced years old trying to be 38 or, in one ridiculous scene, about 19. And there were ridiculous scenes, not to mention some mind-numbingly boring ones. Glenn Close had a spectacular double play of 1) bringing the movie to a screaming halt whenever she showed up on screen and 2) nailing the first of two momentous awards for not being in the same league as her female onscreen rival. More on that later.
The movie opens with young Roy looking on as lightning destroys a big ol' tree on the family farm. In Nebraska, of course. Like any kid his age, he takes a chunk of the wood into the barn and crafts a homemade bat stronger than anything in major league baseball. Flash forward to age 19 with Hobbs Redford & Close playing a pair of teenagers with horrifying cases of Progeria. Roy is heading for a tryout to the bigs and promising to come back for Glenn. Then, like any good blue-balled teenage boy, he parlays that into a panty-dropping, knocks her up and bolts for the train.
On the way to Chicago, his drunk scout and a snarky Robert Duvall sportswriter named Max Mercy get a bet going that he can't strike out a Babe Ruth clone named The Whammer who's getting hit on by Barbara Hershey. He does. This swings Babs into his corner. Since Barbara Hershey in her prime is to Glenn Close as Kobe beef is to Salisbury steak without gravy, he charges up to her hotel room. These are salad days for Roy - a few of them ago ago, he was a virgin farmboy. Now, he's headed for a huge contract and his second piece of ass inside of 72 hours.
I know that Roy's supposed to be this paragon of virtue who "lost his way", but so far, he seems to be perfectly happy acting like a first round draft pick of the Texans or Hornets. He just needs a posse.
However, it goes sour quick. Being a naive Nebraska farmboy and not yet having learned that all women are nuts, he decides to hang around and ask questions after seeing her decked out in full funeral gear. Either that or he's hoping for something freaky. Whatever the flawed decision-making process, he takes a bullet in the gut for his troubles, his career is over and it's time for another flash forward.
Roy shows up in New York as the newest rookie call-up for the Knights. (The Natural is supposedly a King Arthur allegory of some sort, but since I'm not being graded on this, let's assume that shit makes my head hurt and move on) Wilford Brimley is Pop, the manager and part-owner who drinks dirty water and bitches. Richard Farnsworth plays World Weary Folksy Old Coot, his assistant. Pop's Knights are firmly in last place and he will lose his share in the team if they don't win the pennant.
Since a guy in that sort of situation would be open to trying any damn thing to get a few wins, he of course sits Roy and doesn't even let him practice. When he finally does give him his famous batting practice scene and Roy puts on a show that makes Mark McGwire look like B.J. Upton, he still is only moved up to pinch-hitting duty. In his 1st plate appearance, he literally knocks the cover off the ball, but finds himself back on the bench behind Michael Madsen.
At this point, most reasonable folks are seeing why Pop's teams may have difficulty finding success. This guy wuold have made Mike Trout ride the pine for three years to prove a point. Either that, or he has a premonition about what Michael Madsen does to those who upset him.
But the powers that be intervene and Madsen shuffles off this mortal coil mid-game after pulling a Rodney McCray. This frees up both right field and Kim Basinger. The good news - Roy goes on a Ted Williams-ish tear and starts leading the Knights out of the basement. The bad news - Darrin McGavin, The Night Stalker, is a shady gambler in league with the team's vampire owner. Knowing, as did Mickey Goldmill RIP, that women weaken legs, he sets up Roy with Kim Basinger and naturally Roy quickly turns into Mario Mendoza.
It's quickly becoming apparent that the world of The Natural is not a very flattering place to be a woman unless you're a Nebraska farm girl with Progeria. You know, since the alternative female roles are murdering crazypantses or career-killing babes.
Well, Roy's plowing along the Mendoza line until a game in Wrigley where Glenn Close decides to show up. She hasn't aged a day since they were teenagers. Of course, she looked 47 then. No matter, he takes an 0-2 pitch about 684 feet through a center field clock and he's back, baby.
Afterward, he heads out for a soda date with Glenn at which point, I generally nod off while they catch up, the audience figures out about their son even though Roy doesn't, they give each other pining looks and zzzzzzzz. Glenn Close scenes in this show have virtually the same effect on the audience as Craig Kimbrel has on opposing hitters in the bottom of the ninth.
Redford ditches Basinger at this point and the Knights resume their charge which leads to an odd Glenn Close Phenomenon. In almost back-to-back 80's movies, 1) Robert Redford ditched Kim Basinger for Glenn Close and 2) Michael Douglas cheated on a 1987 Anne Archer to be with Glenn Close. Now I actually do think that Close is an amazing actress, but it would be hard to find another example where top leading men of their day basically made the equivalent of trading John Smoltz to get Doyle Alexander with Redford and Douglas playing the role of the Tigers. Feel free to argue with me on this.
The Night Stalker tries to bribe Hobbs to take a dive down the stretch, but Roy refuses. At that point, he has either been poisoned or his old gunshot wound decides to act up and Roy goes down for the count and is told he could die if he plays. So, naturally, Roy heads down to the ballpark first stopping off at the owner/vampire's office to flip on the lights and make him holler. Game on. After a few more whiffs and some pain, he comes up in the 9th, goes to 0-2, shatters his homemade bat on a long foul and his internal injury starts bleeding out of his side.
In most cases, my guess is that if you start bleeding externally from an internal injury, you're probably going to drop in the batter's box like Marvis Fraizer and die while an old 1940's doctor listens to you with a stethoscope. But real life it isn't and it's time for Roy to hit the best on-screen home run in movie history. The ball shatters the lights spraying glass fragments, flame and electricity all over the joyous and utterly unconcerned players and fans.
Roy then returns to the farm with Glenn to play catch with his girl-armed son who looks like he was taught to throw by Ray Kinsella's dad from Field of Dreams.
The End (A happy one, not the depressing book one.)
Quality of Sports Scenes: When making a sports movie, it's always tough for a director to decide how much realism to sacrifice in the name of the acting. Do you go the "Miracle" route and try to find athletes who can act? Do you rely on actors with an athletic background a la Charlie Sheen in "Major League"? Do you try to skate by with excellent actors whose subpar athletic ability can sink you like Tim Robbins in "Bull Durham"? Do you look for a mix?
Near as I can tell, they went the actor route and because of that many of the baseball scenes were, um, slow. I know this was supposed to be a last place squad, but I get the feeling most local slow-pitch teams could've wiped the field with these guys. And with all the shots of pitches leaving hands and then appearing in mitts with a gunshot sound, I'm guessing that was about the speed that the Tim Robbins/John Kinsella talent was producing on the mound. Also, Joe Don Baker wasn't particularly threatening as The Whammer.
On the other hand, Redford came off with a nice swing and throwing motion and carried himself like a pro athlete, albeit one that had been retired for 9 years. Since the star looked the part, this score doesn't get murdered.
Grade: **1/2 Solich
The Bad Guys: No shortage from which to pick here. The Whammer & Max Mercy are assholes. Barbara Hershey is a psycho attempted murderess. Kim Basinger's job is to ruin careers for a gambler for cash. But our top two have to be Robert Prosky as the evil owner who likes to sit in the dark and McGavin as the gambler. Prosky's character is a little more of kooky caricature, but McGavin is in top form as a sly manipulator. That performance pushes this one up a little.
Grade: **** Devaney
Music: If that musical score doesn't pop in your head and give you chills whenever you so much as even THINK of "The Natural", then I'm not sure how you made it this far. Randy Newman has been nominated 15 times for his scores and songs, but this is the one everyone remembers.
Grade: ***** Osborne
The Love Interest: If you get drowsy whenever she's on-screen and would rather put a gun-toting nutjob dressed for a funeral or money-draining career killer in your spank bank, that's not a good sign that she's going to score well in this category. I guess one star for not being a tranny or screaming, "YOU CAN'T WIN!", Adrian Balboa-style.
Grade: * Callahan
Adrenalin/Goosebump Scenes: There's three I count and they're all top notch aided by the slow-motion footage and Newman's aforementioned score. Even though I made fun of Joe Don Baker, the Whammer strikeout scene is excellent. I love Robert Duvall pausing for a moment, confused, then saying almost apologetically, "You're out." The home run in Chicago is another and even though the whole world knew it was coming, the walk-off fireworks show produced goosebumps galore. A cool little touch: the way they would filter out everything but the music and the radio play-by-play. These three scenes are the only ones that many who buy the DVD will watch. I wish there had been more.
Grade: ****1/2 Devaney
Comedy: Basically limited to Wilford Brimley and his bitching. I think Jay of Silent Bob & Jay fame would refer to the rest of the cast as a bunch of "morose motherfuckers here". This is a serious drama, by God. But crusty old Wil's complaining and his classic response to losing a ball in the sun on an overcast day at least take this out of Callahan territory.
Grade: ** Solich
Unintentional Comedy: Another pretty empty category. Prosky never quite enters this territory as a fat vampire. The director gamely tried to add points by adding a Token Fat Kid batboy, but he doesn't do much besides grin and run badly. Redford and Close as teenagers gets a chuckle or two. That's about it. Drama, baby, drama.
Grade: * Callahan
The Training Montage: The closest thing they have is a montage when Roy goes on his hot start and hits roughly 214 home runs. However, it's themed over with period, swing-type stuff, so nothing to fire anyone up.
Grade: * Callahan
Rewatchability: If this just came down to the goosebump scenes and had more Wil Brimley, this would be a 5-star Osborne lock. But, unfortunately, this baby runs two hours and 18 minutes. At times, it's like being forced to watch Ken Burns being interviewed on The View for three hours before getting to watch Kirk Gibson's home run. A show does not score well in this category if the "Skip Scene" button on the DVD remote is constantly being pushed. But, oh, those three scenes.
Grade: ** Solich
OVERALL: The rankings above are a story of extremes. If you are one of those people who think of the game as poetry, the stadiums as cathedrals, baseball as a chess match and love to think of different ways to describe the smell of the grass, then this movie is for you.
If "Major League" is more your speed; if you agree with Dan Jenkins that "if baseball was as complicated as writers try to make it sound, then baseball players would be too dumb to play it"; and if you would rather see Chipper Jones strut to the plate as "Crazy Train" blares than hum some Bach whilst sipping an espresso as Ichiro fouls off his 23rd pitch locked in a tense battle of wits between hurler and batter, then you will probably agree with this final number.
Grade: ** Solich