Though its story - small town nobody belatedly lives out lifelong dream in professional sports - is as old as the moon, The Rookie (2002) pulls off all the sports movie cliches in an almost irresistible, crowd-pleasing manner. It gets away with its outrageous sentimentality for one very good reason: it's a true story. Indeed, some plot points that teeter toward manipulative schmaltz, stuff you'd swear had to have been concocted for the movie, literary license and all that, turns out to have actually happened. Dennis Quaid gives a fine, understated performance and both Mark Rich's screenplay and John Lee Hancock's direction keep it intimate and realistic. Disney's Blu-ray is pretty good if not outstanding, with okay video/audio and a few extras.
After moving 14 times before he was twelve years old, Jimmy Morris (Trevor Morgan, curiously unbilled) and his family settle in Big Lake, a tiny town in rural West Texas. Jim has a passion for baseball, but his love of the game isn't shared by his economically depressed, Last Picture Show-like community, who like the rest of the state is obsessed instead with football. Later, Jimmy has a brief, erratic career as a pitcher in Minor League Baseball, but his career is cut short by a shoulder injury. (Oddly, none of these early-adult scenes are shown and are only cryptically alluded to.)
Now a 36-year-old adult (and played by 48-year-old Quaid), married to Lorri (Rachel Griffiths) with three kids, Jimmy has resigned himself to spending the rest of his days teaching physical science at Big Lake High School and coaching its under-funded, dispirited baseball team. With the sport on the verge of being dropped by the disinterested school board, Jimmy tries to light a fire under his team's belly, but they surprise him with a counter-offer. Aware of his still inexplicably strong pitching arm, the team makes an outrageous proposal: if they make it to the State Finals, he has to tryout for professional baseball again.
Remembering that his team won just one game in each of its last two seasons, Jimmy accepts their proposal, figuring if nothing else it'll motivate them to win a few games. But then the Big Lake Owls start winning. And winning. And then, finally, as his players insist one-by-one in a genuinely touching scene, now it's Jimmy's turn.
For people not into baseball, its stature as Great-American-Myth with, in this case, the Texas Rangers' Ballpark in Arlington Jimmy's Mt. Olympus, tends to leave them nonplussed - why were all those grown men sobbing at the end of Field of Dreams again? - and yet, like the best baseball movies The Rookie is about larger, more universal issues: tying up loose ends, unfinished business in one's life.
In The Rookie, Jimmy's last-ditch efforts to make it in professional baseball is tied thematically to a long-estranged relationship with his emotionally distant, unsupportive father (Brian Cox, in reality only eight years older than Quaid). Early scenes between the father, cold and unloving, and young Jimmy are overdone, but later on the father's awkward efforts to reconnect with his adult son and Jimmy's bitterness about their relationship have an authentic air, and the two actors, despite their only slight age difference, pull it off.
Similarly, Quaid's extra years are compensated by a strong performance; he's believable in everything he does: science teacher, baseball coach, middle-aged parent, wide-eyed rookie. Usually in films like this the protagonist believes in himself and his dream even if nobody else does, while the ultimate aim seems to slip further and further away until fate intervenes and the hero at long last gets his chance. The Rookie is almost the inverse of this: Jimmy doesn't believe in himself and long ago has given up on his dream. Others believe in him, however, and fate not only has to step in multiple times, it practically has to bite him in the ass before he begins to believe it himself.
For Quaid, the character is the bipolar opposite of one of his best-ever performances, as cocky, super-assured Mercury Astronaut Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff. They make an interesting contrast, and with many other facets of The Rookie it's almost too much of a good idea, but the emotional payoff in the film's final reels justify it in the end.
The film has its share of memorable moments, almost all of which turn out to have actually happened to the real Jim Morris, such as the tryout scene where, inexplicably, scouts clock Jimmy's pitches at between 96-98mph, an unheard-of feat for a washed-up 36-year-old. Or, for that matter, what comes immediately before he tries out: while the 20-something players stretch and warm up, Jimmy's stuck with the kids, changing diapers out of the back of his pick-up, and pushing a stroller around as he gets ready.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, The Rookie's almost bleak rural setting and sleepy town ambiance isn't trying to dazzle the senses, though cinematographer John Schwartzman does a nice job throughout and uses the full width of the 'scope frame for his compositions. Both visually and aurally the picture is selective in a way harking back to movies like Shane, using sound (such as the schhwoooop! of Jimmy's pitches) and images (the sensory overload of The Ballpark in Arlington) as cinematic exclamation points.
The 1080p / 2.40:1 transfer has a very few instances of speckling but basically it looks fine and the colors and contrast all look quite good. The low-key audio, in 5.1 uncompressed surround English, and 5.1 Dolby Digital in English, French, and Spanish, tends to keep everything near the front speakers until the Major League climax, when the use of surround becomes rather dramatic.
As with Hidalgo Disney's Blu-ray cover text promises subtitles only in English, French, and Spanish, but in fact the disc is encoded with subtitles and menu screens in Portuguese and Chinese also.
Preceding the feature are high-def ads for Disney's upcoming Sleeping Beauty (which will either look stupendous or inexcusably soft; the ad isn't clear which way it'll go), Pixar's WALL*E, Enchanted, and National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
Supplements, all standard-def, are hit and miss. Best of the bunch is The Inspirational Story of Jim Morris (4:3, 22 minutes) which intercuts a lengthy interview with Morris, visiting his old haunts, with clips of his MLB career, some cast and crew interviews (though Quaid is missing), and even interviews with Morris's mother and a member of his former high school baseball team. It's interesting mainly in that we get to see just how faithful the movie is to Morris's incredible story.
Of less interest are about 18-minutes worth of Deleted Scenes for a film already overlong at 128 minutes. On the plus side the director is on hand to introduce the clips and explain why they were cut from the finished film.
An Audio Commentary track with director John Lee Hancock and Dennis Quaid is dominated by the former and, while informative, not all that interesting; most will be satisfied looking at the Jim Morris featurette. Finally, a completely superfluous Spring Training: Baseball Tips from the Pros (eight minutes) is of minimal interest; it's hard to imagine even Little Leaguers getting much out of that one.
A true story told like a Great American Fable, The Rookie is old-fashioned and highly predictable yet very enjoyable, even moving at times. It's a must for sports fans, and with its G-rating a good if overlong film for the entire family. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest books, Japanese Cinema and The Toho Studios Story, are now available for pre-order.