[Screen It]

(1999) (Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston) (PG-13)

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Drama: A veteran baseball pitcher, having just learned that the love of his life is leaving him and that he's to be traded to another team, tries to pitch the game of his career.
It hasn't been a good day for veteran Detroit Tigers pitcher, Billy Chapel (KEVIN COSTNER). Not only has he learned that owner Gary Wheeler (BRIAN COX) has sold the team meaning he's likely to be traded, but the love of his life, Jane Aubrey (KELLY PRESTON), has announced she's moving to London for a new job.

Wheeler, who's disgusted with what the game has become, encourages Chapel to retire, but the pitcher isn't sure that's what's for him. What he is sure of, however, is that he's going to pitch the game of his life in what may be the last outing of a distinguished career. Thus, despite manager Frank Perry (J.K. SIMMONS) being concerned about Chapel's arm and wanting to replace his longtime catcher and personal friend Gus Sinski (JOHN C. REILLY), Chapel sets out to prove that he's still got what it takes.

As the game with the New York Yankees begins and he faces intimidating hitters such as Sam Tuttle (MICHAEL PAPAJOHN), Chapel begins recollecting his career and romance with Jane. With his effort turning into a potential no-hitter, Billy thinks back not only to former teammates such as Davis Birch (BILL ROGERS) and his own rehabilitation after an off-season injury nearly ended his career, but also to first meeting Jane, her daughter, Heather (JENA MALONE), and the on-again, off-again relationship with Jane over the last five years.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
While most actors and actresses have varied careers where they play a multitude of different characters, some performers are best known for embodying certain characters or character types. Woody Allen and Albert Brooks usually play the same sort of neurotic character, Sean Connery and Roger Moore are best known as 007 despite inhabiting other characters, and the same holds true for John Wayne and Clint Eastwood regarding their appearances in Westerns.

That same pigeonholing is starting to apply to actor Kevin Costner. Although he's played a wide range of characters throughout his career -- all to varying degrees of success and public acceptance -- he seems most natural playing the frustrated and/or troubled athlete.

Whether playing a catcher trying to help a young catcher while dealing with a groupie ("Bull Durham"), a former golfer who doesn't know how to "play up" on the course or in life ("Tin Cup"), or a baseball fan farmer with a cornfield inhabited by ghostly ballplayers ("Field of Dreams"), Costner seems to deliver his best performances when appearing in sports-related films. Embodying the all-American "everyman" athlete, he plays the types of roles one could imagine would have gone to the likes of Jimmy Stewart in times gone past.

Now you can add veteran baseball pitcher Billy Chapel in "For Love of the Game" to Costner's athletic resume. A sports film wrapped around a romantic drama, this entertaining hybrid offers enough realistic baseball scenes along with plenty of standard roller coaster style romance (the type with successive ups and downs) to please those on either side of the gender fence. Although not a perfect film and at times a bit slow, the film's cross-gender appeal should ensure that this good "date movie" will easily round the bases after the box office seventh inning stretch.

Bucking the system and avoiding the stereotypical playoff or World Series championship run that inevitably comes down to the last pitch or hit at the bottom of the ninth inning of the last game, the film instead focuses on just one game where the outcome -- in terms of playoff ramifications -- is meaningless.

While the outcome is unavoidably tied to whether Costner's character can withstand the physical pain and successfully pitch a no-hitter, the film is really about a man trying to go out on top. Since the film deals with the approaching "death" of the pitcher's career, director Sam Raimi (who's heading even further into mainstream movie making after films such as "A Simple Plan" and "Darkman"), and screenwriter Dana Stevens ("City of Angels," "Blink"), who adapts Michael Shaara's novel, turn the film into a "life passing before your eyes" type of story.

Although the character's career spans nearly two decades, the filmmakers focus on the last five years. That's due in part to the inability to "de-age" Costner to any believable extent, but also because that's where the romantic part of the story takes place. Essentially a standalone baseball game mixed with chronological flashbacks regarding the many ups and downs of the pitcher's romance with a pretty writer, the film is a mostly winning combination of the two.

Since the solid, but not particularly outstanding plot doesn't offer much in the way of any earth shattering developments during its two hour plus runtime, however, a great deal of the film's success lies with Costner, co-star Kelly Preston and the chemistry between them.

As earlier stated, this is Costner's best type of role and he delivers a completely credible performance. Whether actually realistically pitching or portraying the determined and focused athlete, Costner creates a character who's clearly not perfect, but one who easily gains the audience's empathy. That's partly due to our fascination with "old timer" athletes getting one final hurrah at proving their worth, and regardless of whether it's John Elway, Jimmy Connors, Wayne Gretzky or, in this case, the fictional Billy Chapel, we want to see these athletes succeed one last time.

Playing the woman who falls for him, Kelly Preston ("Holy Man," "Twins") may have a less developed character, but she nonetheless delivers a good performance and the chemistry -- both good and bad -- between her and Costner's characters always feel real. Supporting performances from the likes of John C. Reilly ("Boogie Nights") as Chapel's best friend and Jena Malone ("Stepmom") as Jane's teenage daughter are solid, while all of the ball players feel like real players and not just actors dressed up in baseball uniforms.

What's most surprising is that director Raimi manages to put some "suspense" into both the game and the romance when neither are particularly novel to the movies and the audience arrives with preconceived notions of how they'll turn out. That tension factor is particularly true for Chapel's efforts to pitch the no- hitter where there's some lingering doubt -- based on the film's occasionally dour approach and Costner's appearance in "Tin Cup" where he didn't succeed in the truest sense of the word -- about whether he'll achieve his goal.

It also doesn't hurt that Raimi manages to create that all-American atmosphere that should sweep all but the most jaded cynics into the proceedings and have nearly everyone rooting for Chapel in both the game and his romance with Jane. While the film teeters on a touch of mawkishness as it draws to a close -- particularly in the romance department -- is a bit too long, and may annoy some by having Costner verbalize what his character thinks about others while on the mound, for the most part it's entertaining and clearly a crowd pleaser.

Although not as good or as enjoyable as Costner's other baseball flicks, "Bull Durham"and "Field of Dreams," this is still a solid and mostly entertaining entry in the sports picture genre. With the actor back on familiar ground and featuring a decent mixture of realistic baseball and romantic drama, this film may not quite be a grand slam, but it's bound to be a pretty big hit. We give "For Love of the Game" a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 14, 1999 / Posted September 17, 1999

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