Blu-ray Review: Bull Durham (1988)

Now Available to Own

From stories of underdogs overcoming tremendous obstacles to somebody achieving a greater sense of identity or coming-of-age through athletics, sports movies are notorious for having a particular paradigm.

Typically the formulas click into place like a rollercoaster traveling along the tracks of twists, turns and near-misses, which are as easily identifiable to universal moviegoers as the numerous sports clichés we use on a daily basis.

And sure enough, the actual clichés that a ballplayer uses with press interviews about taking it one game at a time are even utilized themselves in Ron Shelton's ingeniously creative sexy comedic romance and buddy picture.

Employing all of the immediately recognizable ingredients we're used to seeing in sports movies including a mentor/student relationship, a team of misfits on a losing streak and a love triangle, Bull Durham manages to present these familiar situations and characters in such a way so that the result feels like we're watching a whole new ball game being played that will be named later.

Likewise, after walking into the office of the single-A (advanced) minor league coach for the Durham, North Carolina Bulls, twelve year baseball veteran “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner) informs his new boss that he is “the player to be named later.”

Joining the team following the management buyout of his triple-A card, Crash quickly learns he's been brought back to A-level so that he can take the out-of-control, undisciplined pitcher Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) with “a million dollar arm and a five cent head” under his wing to prepare him for his inevitable journey to “the show” aka the major league.

Initially insulted, Costner's Crash quits on the spot, storming out of the Bulls office before giving back in to both his love of the game and professionalism. Settling into his new surroundings, things get off to a rocky start when Crash and the hot-headed Ebby find themselves toe to toe out in the alley, ready to duke it out over the team's most valuable groupie, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon).

A college English professor who spends her summers worshiping at “the church of baseball,” Annie who intriguingly Shelton has serving as both the film's narrator and heart is just as vital to the Bulls as the players on the field. Although it takes Crash and Nuke by surprise when they find out that she's been scouting them for her “draft picks,” the audience is already well aware of Annie's unorthodox managerial role running her very own kinky yet monogamous version of “spring training,” that helps her select one of the men to share her bed as well as her mind.

As she reveals in the witty opening monologue, every athlete with whom Annie has recruited has gone onto have the best season of their career as she nurtures them on and off the field, sending notes regarding the bend of their back on the mound during the game and then letting them rest their back tied up in her bed while she reads them Walt Whitman.

Yet despite their magnetic, tangible onscreen chemistry which is ironic in retrospect considering the offscreen heat sparking between Robbins and Sarandon, Costner's Crash informs Annie that he doesn't “try out” and wouldn't be interested in a woman who's interested in Robbins' fun-loving but incredibly immature Ebby, making Crash the first man in history to turn down a date with Annie.

Of course, it's that old seductive banter filled tango that makes the game of love so enjoyable to play. And in his directorial debut, talented screenwriter and former minor leaguer Ron Shelton proved he not only knew all the rules but was eager and willing to rewrite the playbook.

Hearkening back to old screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s wherein characters engaged in flirtatious conversations that flew by even faster than one of Nuke's ninety-mile an hour pitches, Shelton keeps us thoroughly engaged with his genuinely sophisticated and intelligently sexy exploration of the dynamic between men and women.

In one of her signature roles, Sarandon steals what could've been a traditional male bonding sports film in a taboo challenging characterization that dares us to look past societal norms regarding female sexuality by walking a fine line between tough and tender.

While she's well-matched by her impressive costars as Robbins adds another layer to his goofy man-child and Costner has an old-fashioned world weariness about him that feels like an inspired take on the part, Sarandon's Annie is the one that stays with you the most.

And in this technically first rate high definition transfer, Shelton's Durham remains just as stellar as ever. Life-affirming and extremely well-written, Bull Durham is that rare film that goes beyond the window dressing of either a sports movie or romantic comedy genre picture to truly live up to the minor league team's hype as “the greatest show in dirt,” finding a fan in another daringly diverse filmmaker – the late great Billy Wilder.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.