A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: The 20th Anniversary Celebration Of “For Love Of The Game”, One Of The Best Films You Probably Missed But Shouldn’t. Horror & Cult Filmmaker Sam Raimi Directs Kevin Costner As Pitcher Billy Chapel, Who Looks Back On His Life In Romance & Career In Baseball, As He Tries To Pitch The Perfect Game. Raimi Directs “For Love Of The Game” In An Old Fashioned Way & Comes Up With An Ideal Movie Formula. A Sports Film That You Won’t Expect.
Director Sam Raimi has always been known as the Indie Horror filmmaker, until he decided to go mainstream after directing “Darkman” in 1991, “Army Of Darkness” in 1992 and the indie spaghetti western “The Quick And The Dead” in 1995. Raimi’s first try at mainstream cinema was 1998’s crime thriller “A Simple Plan” with Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton. In 1999 Raimi took to the sentimental with “For Love Of The Game”, and hit a home run with his sophomore mainstream film.
Sam Raimi has come up with an ideal movie formula: a mix of rousing sports scenes for the guys and an old fashioned romance for the ladies. “For Love Of The Game” was probably an idea that shouldn’t have worked especially coming from director Sam Raimi, who made a name for himself with the “Evil Dead” films. After receiving rave reviews from critics and audiences for his superb thriller “A Simple Plan” (released a year before), a baseball/romantic drama certainly doesn’t sound like a film you’d find in Raimi’s filmography.
Starring in his third baseball film after “Bull Durham” and “Field Of Dreams”, Kevin Costner hasn’t been this good in anything in prior years before “For Love Of The Game”. Costner who had been in a six year slump, starring in box office bomb after bomb from “Wyatt Earp” to “Waterworld” to “Tin Cup” to “Message In A Bottle”, another romance drama released the same year as “For Love Of The Game”.
Here Costner plays Billy Chapel, an aging pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who is nearing retirement. The decision to retire is being pushed on him by the Tigers owner, Gary Wheeler (Brian Cox), who is in the process of selling the team, as well as trading Billy to another one.
If that isn’t enough, Billy’s long-simmering relationship with beautiful magazine writer Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) appears to be over, especially since Jane is moving to England for a new job and Billy seems unwilling to make it a long-term commitment. Chapel has a lot on his mind as he prepares to take the field against the New York Yankees, a game that means little in the standings but one that could be his swansong. As each inning rolls on, Billy begins flirting with a no-hitter and tries to pitch a perfect game. While on the mound Chapel begins to reflect on decisions he’s made that have brought him to this point in his life.
A decade ago before “For Love Of The Game”, Costner was one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actors, a leading man with a proven box office record. His directorial debut “Dances With Wolves”, was beloved by both critics and the public, in addition to winning seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), it grossed more than $500 million worldwide. However, just eight years later, Costner had become Hollywood’s whipping boy as he received the blame for the disastrous box office failure of “Waterworld” and his sophomore directorial effort behind the camera “The Postman”. “For Love Of The Game” was the actor’s attempt at a comeback, while it plays to his strengths and gives a classic Costner performance. The film grossed only $46 million off of a $50 million budget and was deemed another box office bomb for his career. In all honesty Costner rewards us by giving one of his best performances.
“For Love Of The Game” is a highly complex film and a sports film unlike anything you’ve seen before. It works in flashbacks to different points in Chapel’s life, but director Sam Raimi manages to hold it all together, showing us that it is a romance about a man and a woman, and a romance about baseball itself.
Clearly a baseball fan, director Sam Raimi knows how to stage the on-field action so the hits and runs have a whiff of reality about them. Crafted with respect for the game and an eye towards accuracy, they represent some of the most true-to-life baseball moments ever presented in a non-documentary form. “For Love Of The Game” is his first big-budget mainstream production, and his first anamorphic widescreen feature to be shot in 2.39:1 aspect ratio. “For Love Of The Game” represents a solid effort for Raimi. The director especially deserves credit for the details within the baseball sequences.
Raimi has obvious visual talents and he also does a superb job of building up and then maintaining tension during the on-field sequences. Even the leisurely pacing for the romantic story line doesn’t seem to hurt the movie and in fact it helps the character development seem more convincing, particularly the subplot about Billy relating to Jane’s rebellious daughter (played by Jena Malone). The romantic angle is necessary to the overall plot because it provides a sense of balance in Billy Chapel’s life. But this film’s contrived plotting, soap opera-like sappiness and extreme predictability, are actually some of its biggest strengths.
Although his brilliant Civil War novel “The Killer Angels” (which makes an appearance as Billy’s in-flight reading) was the deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize. “For Love of the Game” was not published during the author’s life and only discovered after his death by his son Jeff. It’s been said by book reviewers that it’s clumsily written and so devoid of usable personal incident that if not for Dana Stevens’ addition of events and characters, like a daughter for Jane, there would be no film to speak of.
Also thanks to Dana Stevens screenplay the film is really engaging when it chronicles the passionate but stormy relationship between Billy and Jane’s relationship, developing from casual encounter to intense codependence, all the while his career rises and stumbles and her doubts grow. Ms. Preston has a naturalism for which the camera has an obvious fondness, and her warmth and honesty have a melting effect on Costner. The chemistry brings out an unfamiliar softness in his performance that is appealing. Costner and Preston, who appears to be channeling Meg Ryan at her froopiest, make a very appealing on-screen couple. Before Kelly Preston was casted, Annette Bening was up for the role.
Also, Raimi gets fine performances from the talented supporting cast, particularly character actor John C. Reilly as Billy’s long-time catcher and confidante. But it’s really Costner’s show, and he really shines. And he brings athleticism to his part, without which the film probably wouldn’t have worked. It’s just about impossible not to get caught up in the story. Costner is great at this kind of role. Fun Fact: The shots of Billy Chapel’s parents at the beginning of the movie are Kevin Costner’s actual parents.
According to Kevin Costner, Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner was becoming agitated that the Yankees would be seen losing in a movie filmed on location at Yankee Stadium. Costner said he was able to calm Steinbrenner down by explaining that Billy Chapel, and not necessarily the game itself was the movie’s major focus. Costner also explained that the game would mean nothing to the Yankees, and that it wasn’t played as a “Winner Take All” scenario. Costner convinced Steinbrenner that in the movie’s universe, the Yankees would clinch the AL East division the next day, keeping alive their World Series chances. Costner said that he later received a Yankees 1999 World Series ring as a Thank You gift from Steinbrenner.
There are many things I like about “For Love Of The Game”. Firstly, the film understands which baseball clichés to keep and which to throw out. There is no World Series to win, nor is the chronicled game anything big. We’re not being faced with a character making a comeback; instead, this is a man in the dying twilight of a great career. In many ways, “For Love Of The Game” is an old fashioned motion picture. It’s surprisingly sensitive, extremely polished and not quite what you’d expect. And everyone in it whether in front or behind the camera is really quite wonderful in it.
•I chose “For Love Of The Game” to write about on it’s anniversary not only because I love this film. It’s also because it’s very unappreciated and deserves better recognition and it’s also my friend Kenneth’s favorite Baseball film and one of his favorite films. So this also goes out to you Ken!