Movie review: ‘Major League’

With college basketball’s “March Madness” about to be forgotten the very second it ends tomorrow (April 3, 2017) and the baseball season starting today for 2017, I’m doing a sports theme. On the basketball front, I’ve reviewed “Hoosiers” (click here to read it) and the underrated “Blue Chips” (click here for my review) and now for baseball, I want to review a film from that sport but won’t for the decidedly deserving “Bull Durham” because the schoolyard politics and sleazy philosophy of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon always leaves a nasty taste in one’s mouth even in such a great film, or “Field of Dreams” because it has too many layers in it for an amateur reviewer like myself to evaluate. So, for today’s first real pitch of the year, I’ll do rollicking comedy “Major League,” which is arguably the “Caddyshack” of the baseball world – of course “Major League” is not even half the film that “Caddyshack” is, but it is really funny and has nice work from its eclectic cast.

‘Major League’
(1989; 107 minutes; rated R; directed by David Ward and starring Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen and Rene Russo)

JUST A LITTLE OUTSIDE … THE NORM

(NOTE: I expanded this review – including updating the start of the 2016 baseball season over the original posting date in 2015 – and updated links on April 9, 2016. I also updated it for the start of the 2017 baseball season.)

It takes a catch phrase to make a sports movie. Just take “Noonan!” for example from the golf comedy classic “Caddyshack.” You hear it at just about every golf course on earth every time there’s a fun round being played (I believe even the pros would say it the rule allowed). As for baseball, “Major League” delivers its own strike with “just a little outside!” by announcer Bob Uecker in the film as he described a pitch so far off the plate it hit the backstop.

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Major League” came out in early April just in time for the start of the 1989 baseball season and is the story of a bunch of misfits who, naturally, come together in spite of all odds and prevail. However tired and predictable the plot, it is the actors – especially the supporting cast – who make this one shine. From the big, menacing voodoo-practicing slugger (remember “Pedro Cerrano” and his iconic god “Jobu”?) to the aging pitcher who uses vaginal lubricant to “doctor” up the baseball, they are instantly recognizable to many baseball fans and became almost instant folklore.

The on-field action isn’t too good since they look like actors pretending to be ballplayers (although a real ballplayer did stunt double work for star Tom Berenger as the team’s catcher). However, that’s incidental and something else is what makes “Major League” good. It’s how the characters interact and the backstory about Berenger winning back the love that he had lost.

Briefly: The vacuous new owner of the Cleveland baseball team (a trophy wife whose husband has died) wants the team to lose big so that attendance levels will be so low that she can move the team to Miami (this before the establishment of the original Florida – now Miami – Marlins in 1993). To that end, she picks a group of losers and has-beens to come to spring training. However, the team gels and winds up foiling all her plans. Naturally.

Although there is a pair of co-stars here (Berenger as “Jake Taylor” and Charlie Sheen as “Ricky ‘Wild Thing’ Vaughn”), the best acting job mimics the best job in baseball – James Gammon as manager “Lou Brown.” Just like a team manager must craft a team, Gammon gives a gravelly-voiced performance that establishes him (even when he’s a tire salesman) the team’s solid foundation based somewhat on an underlying menace that he brings to the fore. He’s tough, but also understanding and worldly-wise.

It’s a top-of-resume effort from Gammon, who was also in “Cold Mountain,” “The Iron Giant” and “Silverado” (click here for my review) as well as on TV in shows diverse as “Nash Bridges” and “Monk.” He died of cancer at the age of 70 in 2010.

Here’s a rundown of some of the rest of the principal cast:

  • Berenger, who was cast perfectly here, shows as much maturity on the field as he lacks off the field with his ex-wife (played by Rene Russo). He knows the right things to do on the field – although his knees are worn out – and wants to do the same with Russo and manages a solid effort. Berenger was in “Sniper” and was even better in “Betrayed” as a farmer-turned-right-wing gunman (click here for my review).
  • Russo, who plays “Lynn Wells,” doesn’t have much of a chance to show off her stuff since her character is pretty much lost in the baseball story. Her relationship with Berenger had potential for much more (they even cut a wedding scene with them for the end of the film because filmmakers said it would detract from baseball). Russo is smooth here and doesn’t stretch her talent. She was in the remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” (click here for my review) and I especially enjoyed her work in the little-remembered comedy “Big Trouble” with Tim Allen (click here for my review).
  • Sheen is another piece of excellent casting as the slightly off-center pitcher with a lot of velocity on his fastball, but not much accuracy at first (he needed glasses). Sheen actually underplays this role somewhat and also shows some versatility through a couple of scenes such as his shocked response to Berenger after finding out he slept with a teammate’s wife. Sheen is of course most famous for his off-screen personal antics, but was pitch-perfect in TV’s “Two and a Half Men” (which became dreck with the talentless Ashton Kutcher after Sheen was fired) and is also remembered for “Wall Street.”
  • Dennis Haysbert makes his “Pedro Cerrano” the most memorable and remembered character here. “Cerrano” seeks success through voodoo, has a god named “Jobu” and packs even more menace than Gammon. It’s quite a threatening role and one you wouldn’t recognize as the calm, grounded guy doing the Allstate insurance commercials today. Haysbert manages to make sure that even now, you won’t touch Jobu’s rum! He was in “Heat” with Robert De Niro an Al Pacino (click here for my review) as well as well as a number of TV shows including “24” and recently on “Empire.”

The rest of the supporting actors do a good job, but I’ll only be able to knock out a couple of mentions as there are too many to note individually:

  • Wesley Snipes plays “Willie Mays Hayes” and is team speedster who runs his way onto the team. Snipes is nicely subdued here and thereby makes the character as effective as any actor could make it. Snipes was even better in “Demolition Man” opposite Sylvester Stallone (click here for my review) and was in “Rising Sun” with Sean Connery before running his personal life aground on tax fraud charges and most recently was in “The Expendables 3.” However, his tour-de-force role as a murderous drug dealer in “New Jack City” is at the top of his resume (click here for my review).
  • Corbin Bernsen, most famous for developing a wonderful character on TV’s “A. Law,” is the team’s high-paid but average star “Roger Dorn.” He plays a bigger role in the sequel and does good work, but doesn’t distinguish himself. For whatever reason, I liked his work best on TV’s “Psych.”
  • Chelcie Ross plays aging pitcher “Eddie Harris” and is truly good with his voice and sarcastic attitude. He shines best when showing Sheen all the stuff he uses on baseballs. Ross was much nastier in a better role in “Hoosiers” and was a bad guy in “Ri¢hie Ri¢h.”

Finally, I come to Uecker. A longtime broadcaster, he came to the attention of “Major League” filmmakers because of TV beer ads. He’s truly in his element and probably wishes he could have said the same things broadcasting that he does in the film. Uecker is funny, exceptionally smooth in his delivery and hits his mark each time. He was in the first “Major League” sequel as well as TV’s “Mr. Belvedere” in a short entertainment career of nine roles.

Major League” did OK at the box office as it finished 26th in 1989 with $49.7 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a budget of $11 million and with subsequent DVD sales and cable movie appearances, it has been a winner for its investors, too. The No. 1 film of the year was “Batman” with $251.1 million, while “Lethal Weapon 2” was second with $197.1 million. Other films from that year that I have reviewed include:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • The working title of the film was “Dead Last.”
  • In real life Sheen was offered a baseball scholarship to Kansas, so he had some experience on the mound. However, filmmakers moved the pitcher’s mound 10 feet closer to home plate so Sheen’s signature fastball would appear to have more velocity than he could actually manage (as a young pitcher, his was in the 80 mph range).
  • The memorable line “Just a little outside …” was improvised by Uecker.
  • Margaret Whitton plays “Rachel Phelps” and is the bad guy here by wanting to sell the team. However, I’d have to say the character was a toss-in since it is a small part and Whitton doesn’t do much with it. Every story needs a villain and she’s it. Whitton was in “Nine ½ Weeks.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The opponent slugger known as Yankees home run threat Haywood was played by former pitcher of the Milwaukee Brewers, Peter Vuckovich. Peter Vuckovich never hit a single home run in his entire 11 year major league career. In fact, during 8 of those 11 years he never made a single plate appearance, since he was pitching in the American League – which uses a designated hitter to bat for the pitcher.”
  • Click here IBDb.com’s extensive trivia page for “Major League.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015, 2016, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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