R Dir: Ron Shelton | Criterion | 1h 48min
Plot: What’s it about?
Looking back, and I find myself doing that more and more as I get older, it really is amazing that the late 80’s gave us a lot of great baseball movies. And two, yes two, of them starred Kevin Costner. I suppose if you’re willing to go back to 1984’s The Natural, that can/will/should count as well. But apart from the movie in question, we also got Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams and my favorite of the bunch – Major League. I know it’s America’s Pastime, so there’ll likely never be a shortage of movies with this sport as the central focus. Putting that aside, Bull Durham was the movie that really put two names on Hollywood’s map – Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins. Both would eventually find Oscar gold (Costner a few years later with Dances with Wolves and Robbins with Mystic River). But it’s this little film directed by Ron Shelton that made them both stars.
Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) has made the rounds as a minor league catcher, but he has always been a solid player and known for his skills. His latest assignment has him joining the Durham Bulls, a Class A team with a real problem on their hands, a young pitcher with a rocket for an arm and oatmeal for brains, or so it would seem. The pitcher is rookie “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), who throws fast, hard, and can hit any mark he needs to, but his bad attitude and wild persona sometimes cost him performance points. So, Crash has been called in to take LaLoosh under his wing as it were, to help him get control over himself, especially when it comes to the mound. But LaLoosh has no respect for the game, more interested in the cash & fame, whereas Crash loves baseball above all other things, so there is a clash from the start. As Crash tries to settle the rookie down, a woman named Annie (Susan Sarandon) enters the picture, but she is no stranger to the Bulls, not even close. Soon enough, a love triangle is formed between the two players and Annie, which makes the process even tougher, of course. Can Crash mentor LaLoosh into respecting the game and what will become of Annie’s affections, when all is said and done?
As Costner’s resume has shown us, he’s better (aka “more likable”) when he’s in his “less is more” mode. His aw shucks mentality is something that most can relate to and not the post-apocalyptic anti-hero of films like Waterworld. There’s an element here that makes the film work, be it the three stars of the film, Shelton’s direction or a great script by, you guessed it, Ron Shelton. Nevertheless, it did work and Bull Durham is and was an instant classic. Shelton and Costner would re-team in 1996 with a change of the sporting venue in another of my favorites – Tin Cup. Costner, an avid golfer in real life, managed to bring the same charm to that film as well. Honestly, I prefer Tin Cup to this film, but it might be an apples and oranges comparison. Regardless of your stance on baseball or Kevin Costner films – there’s no denying that this one deserves to be seen and Criterion, as usual, has knocked it out of the park.
Video: How does it look?
This isn’t the first time this film has been shown in Blu-ray, but it’s unquestionably the best-looking. The original Blu-ray was one of the format’s first offerings and it showed, not in a good way. Criterion has given this a new 4K restoration. For those of you who like this sort of thing, here’s the tech specs:
Supervised by director Ron Shelton, this new digital transfer was created in 10-bit 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, and small dirt.
Breaking that down into layman’s terms, we get a much more “film like” transfer of the film. Contrast and color balance are much improved as is detail and some of the interior shots. It’s as if on some level they took a brush to the print and removed anything and everything that detracted from what was holding the image back. The 1.85:1 AVC HD image has never looked better and it’s yet another feather in Criterion’s cap when it comes to how good these older films can look.
Audio: How does it sound?
Two DTS HD Master Audio tracks are included, with a 2.0 option being offered alongside a 5.1 mix. This appears to be the same mix used for the original Blu-ray, but according to Criterion:
The 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the original 35mm magnetic Dolby A track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotopeRX. Please be sure to enable Dolby Pro Logic decoding on your receiver to properly play the Dolby 2.0 surround soundtrack.
Again, taking that technical jargon and putting into something more palatable means that it’s a much cleaner-sounding track. Directional effects give the movie a more modern feel while dialogue, the film’s stock in trade, sounds crystal clear. Fans will get a kick out of this new mix.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Some of the supplements from the film’s earlier versions has made the cut, but Criterion has added a few bells and whistles of their own. Let’s take a look.
- Audio Commentaries –There are two total: the first is with writer/director Ron Shelton and is a solid track on the whole, as Shelton relates how he developed the story, shares his own baseball memories, and touches on various behind the scenes topics. The second track is with stars Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins, who also provide a worthwhile selection of comments. The two have a candid, open conversation and reveal some great behind the scenes stories, including the challenges of getting the film made, as well as production tales.
- Going to the Show – Produced for this Blu-ray is this feature. The interview was conducted by film critic Michael Sragow for Criterion in Los Angeles in 2018 as he interviews Shelton about his sporting past (he used to be a baseball player), going the showbiz route and he bestows a few tidbits about the minor leagues.
- Between the Lines: The Making of Bull Durham – Something that made the leap from the DVD is this behind the scenes featurette that runs thirty minutes. This piece has a nice selection of interviews, which contain additional insight and some fluff, but mostly good, solid interviews.
- The Greatest Show on Dirt – This now ten year old feature (it came out in 2008) gives us a look at the enduring appeal of the film as well as some interviews with the ensemble cast that appears in the film.
- Today – A four-minute segment that appeared on the show circa September 1991 features Max Patkin, better known as the Clown Prince of Baseball.
- NBC Nightly News – This three minute feature shows the final season of baseball at the Durham Athletic Park in North Carolina where the movie was filmed.
- Theatrical Trailer
- Illustrated Booklet -Roger Angell, a baseball writer for The New Yorker magazine, offers some an illustrated leaflet featuring excerpts from a 1989 piece by longtime New Yorker baseball writer , with comments from the author.
The Bottom Line
Your particular interest in baseball may vary, but there’s no denying that this is one of the the better films about the sport ever made. Yes, it’s not exactly a history less of the sport, more along the lines of what happens off the field – but that’s most, if not all, of the fun. Criterion’s edition is simply second to none. If you have an older DVD or Blu-ray it’s now totally useless. Batter up!