Somewhere in the great baseball film gold rush of the late 1980s, the legacy of "Major League" was lost to the cinema heavens. It doesn't have the sexualized verisimilitude of "Bull Durham," the historical snap of "Eight Men Out," or the three-hankie towel-snap of "Field of Dreams," but "League" has the benefit of being funny about a game that doesn't have many openings for comedy.
The Cleveland Indians are at an all time low. On a losing streak that has endured for decades, the city has lost their faith and the team is almost finished. Recently inheriting the club from her dead husband, former showgirl Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton) is hoping to move the team to Florida for big financial gain, but to hurdle the legality of the sale, she must prove the Indians are literally the worst team around. Under new manager (and former tire salesman) Lou Brown (a terrifically BS-free James Gammon), a club comprised of frightened newcomers and rusty catching vets like Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger, at his most leathery) is assembled, and they'll need all the luck they can get to make this ragtag bunch of ball players come together as a team.
Watching the new "Wild Thing Edition" was a reunion of sorts for me. I haven't viewed the film in its entirely in nearly a decade, and was anxious to see if the ravages of time were especially tough on this 1989 sleeper hit.
Taking in the film with fairly fresh eyes, it's revelatory to report that "Major League" almost isn't about baseball at all. In his effort to soften the film for female audiences, writer/director David S. Ward pads his script with the tentative relationship between Jake and ex-fiancée Lynn (Rene Russo in her feature debut) and their slow dance of flirting and regret. Performed with just the right pangs of guilt by Berenger and Russo, the subplot clicks due to their efforts to make these characters spin a little before they consummate the reunion. However, it's alarming to see Ward take so much time away from the diamond to accomplish this piece of character development.
Indeed, the romantic yearnings successfully integrate the viewer in with a rascal like Jake, but with the shenanigans on the field so expertly realized, anything that takes the story outside of the stadium feels wasteful. With the collection of wacky characters Ward is serving up, the viewer deserves all the time they can get with them.
"League" is at its best with the Indians and their frustrating season of mistakes and comical education. Ward clearly adores baseball, and the details of the sport, from the crisp green of the stadium field to the wizened nature of the vets, feels lived in and real. This authenticity helps to buffer the often broad comedy; Ward writes big, but invites the viewer in on the fun with Pedro Cerrano's (Dennis Haysbert) voodoo, Willie Mays Hayes's (Wesley Snipes) hall of fame ambitions (contrasted hilariously with his decided lack of talent), Roger Dorn's (Corbin Bernsen) unbridled ego, and squinty Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn's (Charlie Sheen) uncouth approach to pitching. The filmmaker is creating a family with this team, and as the movie heads for the "big game" finale, it's impossible not to fall in love with these knuckleheads as they reenergize the Indians and Cleveland itself: the city that feel asleep on the team in the decades since their last championship win.
"Major League" is presented in anamorphic widescreen, 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film wasn't made with a grand visual palette to work from, but the disc contains a pleasant transfer, reproducing Ward's afternoon sunshine photography correctly, bringing out the vivid colors of the uniforms. Night scenes are equally as well represented. If the flesh tones seem a little off, I'm more inclined to blame Berenger's disturbing fake bake over the DVD's performance.
Enjoying a 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix, "Major League" employs good surround moments when detailing the ambiance of the baseball stadiums and the climactic use of X's cover of "Wild Thing" for Vaughn's big relief entrance. The rest of the track is reliable, but mild, doing what it can with the dialogue-driven film.
The 2002 DVD release of "Major League" struck out when it came to supplying supplements for the picture's legion of fans. The "Wild Thing Edition" makes up for the oversight, but with a puzzling roster of extras.
Up to bat first is a feature-length commentary by director David S. Ward and producer Chris Chesser. Unfortunately, it's one of those "Oh, he was great, this was fun, that's my favorite" commentary excursions, revealing very little in the way of behind-the-scenes tomfoolery and production achievements. Add Ward's phlegmy, discomforting voice, and the track can be quite a chore to sit through. Here are some highlights:
- The fictional tale of the Indians' baseball triumph wasn't even shot in Cleveland? Due to financial and other assorted reasons, "Major League" was shot in Milwaukee, with only the opening titles and other scattered shots photographed in Cleveland.
- Charlie Sheen did not enjoy his "lightning bolt" haircut during filming.
- Ward takes credit for the practice of relief pitchers entering the field to booming soundtracks.
- In a fun bit of irony, Wesley Snipes, here portraying the team's fastest player, wasn't much of a runner during the film. Careful staging and trick photography helped Willie Mays Hays achieve his remarkable sprint.
- Jobu, Cerrano's beloved voodoo statute, is missing. Ward and Chesser plead for the prop's safe return.
- If you were curious why the R-rated "Major League" softened to a PG for 1994's "Major League II," blame Ward. On the track, the director expresses embarrassment over all the harsh language.
- Throughout the track, Ward and Chesser detail hefty amounts of deleted footage they were reluctant to cut. Of course, none of these scenes are presented on the DVD.
"My Kinda Team" is a 23-minute featurette covering the making of the film. Ward, Chesser, Charlie Sheen, Dennis Haysbert, Corbin Bernsen, Tom Berenger (who has seen better days), Bob Uecker, Chelcie Ross, and assorted cast and crew are interviewed. The overall mood of the piece is upbeat, with each participant adding their own bit of surprise over the film's initial success and lasting popularity. Some of the anecdotes are repeated on the commentary track.
To add an unnecessary bit of frustration, Ward discusses a joke featured in the "Major League" trailer that's a popular quote with fans. We see the clip in question, but the actual trailer is not on the DVD. Figure that one out.
"A Major League Look at 'Major League'" asks the current Cleveland Indians their thoughts on the film's merits and baseball reality. A whole slew of sloppy kisses are planted on the picture, leaving the actual point of this featurette in serious question. This extra is only for hardcore fans of the team.
"Bob Uecker: Just a Bit Outside" profiles the most colorful character in the film. Uecker's iffy sports career is covered, along with his beloved improv strengths. Alternates takes of the one and only Harry Doyle are included in this featurette. Honestly, I could've done without Uecker trying to explain his "genius," but comments by the ballplayers and the filmmakers are appreciated.
The one scrap of deleted footage included here is an alternate ending. Presented with an introduction by Chesser, it's a twist ending that will have you laughing and scratching your head at the same time. Chesser swears it worked on the page, but I have trouble believing him. It's a logic leap that would make Evel Knievel do a spit-take.
"A Tour of Cerrano's Locker" is a minute-long piece of fluff with the imposing Cuban slugger giving the camera a brief overview of his locker's contents. Watch it only to see Haysbert try desperately to maintain his accent while improvising.
A photo gallery and trailers for other Paramount Special Edition DVDs ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Tommy Boy," and "Airplane!") are included as well.
"Major League" is crippled by some 80s production touches it can't shake, most notably a mid-movie requiem for a long lost love by Bill Medley that seems to be from an entirely different picture. Those retro winces aside, the film remains every bit as charming as it was in 1989, providing the occasional gut-buster to pepper the constant stream of smiles. "Major League" holds up today not only as the rare sports-themed comedy to balance goofiness and dynamic game atmospherics seamlessly, but also as a fleeting reminder of baseball's last remnants of participatory charm and gee-whiz curveball worship.