For Love Of The Game

For Love Of The Game (1999)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, Brian Cox
Extras: Behind the Scenes, Deleted Scenes, Baseball Trivia, Theatrical Trailer, Talent Files, Universal Showcase

Allow me to start this review by stating that I am a Sam Raimi fanatic, so I’ll be scrutinizing "For Love of the Game" more than I would your average film. For, in my mind, Sam Raimi doesn’t make average films, he makes extraordinary cinematic feasts, which never fail to impress on some level. So, if I seem a bit biased as I review Universal’s DVD release of "For Love of the Game", it’s because I have an 18-year history of being a Raimi fan. But, it’s also my job to give you, the reader and consumer, an unbiased opinion of a product, so, I’ll try to be as fair as possible.

"The Game" that "For Love of the Game" focuses on is baseball. In particular, the film focuses on one Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner), a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Billy is forty years old and has been with the Tigers for his entire 19-year professional career. On the morning of the final game of the season, Billy receives two doses of devastating news. First, he learns from the team’s owner Mr. Wheeler (Brian Cox) that the team has been sold and that the new owners want to trade Billy to San Francisco. Then, after being stood up by his old flame Jane (Kelly Preston), Billy learns that Jane is moving to London to begin a new life. So, Billy must deal with all of this news as he goes to Yankee Stadium to pitch what may be the final game of his career.

As the game begins, Billy starts to reflect on the last five years of his life and how he has dealt with baseball and Jane. He reminisces about how he met Jane and how their long-distance relationship began. As Billy’s mind time-travels, his 40 year old arm is working miracles in Yankee Stadium, as Billy strikes out batter after batter. As Billy works his way towards a perfect game, he begins to realize that he’s lead an imperfect life and now that Jane is leaving, he can finally see how he has hurt her in the past and driven her away. As the game draws to a close and the tension mounts with Billy striving to keep his perfect game, he begins to understand that he must choose between baseball and Jane.

The distinguishing feature that stands out most about "For Love of the Game" is the unique narrative structure. While the film starts out as a straight-forward story told in the present, once the game begins, it begins to jump around to different locations and different time periods. We Jane and Billy meeting in New York. We see Jane visiting Billy in Florida for spring training. We see them at Billy’s winter retreat. During these interludes, we are always cutting back to the game in Yankee Stadium, so that we can see how the game in the present parallels Billy’s life for the past five years. Everything starts out just fine in both scenarios, but pressure, pain, and fatigue soon creep into both storylines. With this device, the viewer finds themselves practically watching two movies at once and you can’t wait for the story to flip back so that you can see what going on in the past or present. Writer (and actress) Dana Stevens has done a fine job of crafting this narrative structure from the source novel by Michael Shaara.

While the storytelling technique of the film was impressive, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed with Sam Raimi’s contribution to the film. Raimi has made his directorial mark in two ways. First, with his "Evil Dead" films and with "Darkman", Raimi showed a talent for using the camera like no one else and his hyper-active camera moves have been copied by countless filmmakers. Then, with "A Simple Plan", Raimi proved that he could keep the camera relatively still and use other visual devices to help tell the story. The purely cinematic elements of the fox and the crows in that film were simply genius. Well, we get little of either in "For Love of the Game." While the baseball game scenes are very well shot and quite suspenseful, we get none of Raimi’s trademark camerawork. Despite that fact that this is a drama, I had expected at least one baseball’s POV shot. Also, we don’t have many cinematic narrative elements. The film is shot in a very clean and realistic manner. And while this works, it’s somewhat of a letdown coming from someone like Raimi. "For Love of the Game" is Raimi’s first film shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and he does a fine job with it. (I’d always wondered why he didn’t use it in the past.) However, there are some shots where Raimi has the action centered so that it will crop nicely for TV formatting, the best example being a phone conversation between Billy and Jane where each is at the extreme right or left of the frame.

Based on his film roles in the past, we know that Kevin Costner is comfortable with the subject of baseball and he definitely seems at ease here. He is able to confidently portray a man who feels in control at work, but can’t seem to keep his private life in check. Kelly Preston is good as Jane, and brings a necessary emotional side to the role. The real stand-out in the film is young Jena Malone, who was just plain annoying in "Stepmom", but here shows a newfound maturity and excells in her small role. And, of course, Ted Raimi (Sam’s brother) has a cameo in the film.

I personally can’t tell the difference anymore between Universal’s "Collector’s Editions" and their regular editions, as both are equally loaded with great transfers and special features. "For Love of the Game" is a regular edition, which offers us a beautiful <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer of the film which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. The picture is very clear and appears to be free of pixellation or artifacting. There is no grain on the picture and the color balancing appears to have been done correctly. (Even Raimi’s low-budget films always look really nice on DVD.)

The audio on "For Love of the Game" is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix> and offers a pristine sound transfer. Not only is the sound well-balanced, with the dialogue and the cheers of the Yankee Stadium crowd blending nicely, but there is a true sense of stereo in the surround sound channels that you don’t often get. When Billy’s back is turned to the plate, we can hear the various sounds of the dugouts and the crowd coming from the rear speakers. Trust me, when I get up to see what that banging sound coming from outside is and then realize it’s just the movie, that’s some good sound!

Besides this great transfer, the DVD also has a laundry list of special features. We start with Universal’s "Spotlight on Location." I found this 15-minute-plus behind the scenes feature to be better than most, because it shows more behind the scenes shots than shots from the film. (I hate to have to practically watch a movie again during the behind the scenes footage.) This feature has interviews with the actors and crew and shows how Raimi storyboarded the baseball scenes. Also, this particular "Spotlight on Location" gets bonus points for interviewing Sam Raimi sitting in front of a Spanish poster for "Army of Darkness."
We also get several deleted scenes, showing that the original cut of the film was probably closer to the 2 1/2 hour mark. Many of these scenes are inconsequential, but some, such as Billy talking to an old teammate would have worked in the finished film. The problem with at least two of the deleted scenes is that you have to sit through the entire scene from the finished film to get about 10 seconds of footage that was removed.
There is a special section that explains what a perfect game in baseball really means. This is a nice touch for those who don’t know much about baseball. There is also a baseball trivia game. This is a nice touch for those who do know about baseball.
We also have the usual talent files and production notes. The theatrical trailer for "For Love of the Game" is included and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. The Universal Showcase trailer is a disappointing teaser for "The Klumps", which is made up of footage from "The Nutty Professor."

While I enjoyed "For the Love of the Game" as pure entertainment, I must admit that I was disappointed in it as a Sam Raimi film. The movie offers an interesting story and some true suspense during the baseball scenes, but it just doesn’t feel like a Raimi film. I realize that point doesn’t mean much to most of you, but as I warned you at the outset, I’m hooked. Hopefully, "The Gift" and "Spider-Man" will put Sam back on track. In the meantime, I have no problem recommending "For Love of the Game" to Kevin Costner fans, baseball fans, or romance fans. Just don’t expect Bruce Campbell to show up.