Friday, June 24, 2016

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

With his low-budget revenge movie, Mad Max (1979), Australian filmmaker George Miller created one of the most kinetic action spectacles by choreographing car chases in a way that was unique. They were depicted viscerally, putting you right in the action. The film was a massive success, launching the careers of both Miller and its young star, Mel Gibson. The filmmaker briefly pursued another, unrelated project while turning down several offers from Hollywood before deciding to make sequel only with much more money that would allow him to push his brand of visual storytelling to a new level. The end result was Mad Max 2 (1981) a.k.a. The Road Warrior, an unrelenting journey into a post-apocalyptic world that would prove to be hugely influential, spawning numerous imitations and two sequels that Miller would helm.

After briefly recapping the events depicted in Mad Max, we meet Max (Gibson), a hardened scavenger eking out a desolate existence in the wasteland. Miller wastes no time launching into the film’s first action sequence as Max is pursued by three vehicles populated by leather-clad marauders armed to the teeth and whom he handily bests. This sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film and serves as an introduction to its style. Like any good action director, Miller understands how an action sequence is edited is just as important as how it is choreographed. There is a wonderful economy of style as he conveys the speed and ferocity of violence in this world. He also demonstrates a confidence in his ability to tell a story visually with the first ten minutes devoid of any dialogue save for the voiceover narration that briefly establishes the backstory of this world.

The first bit of dialogue comes from a fellow scavenger known as the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) that Max encounters. He’s the complete opposite of Max – chatty and high-strung. Max bests the Gyro Captain and he tells him of a fortified oil refinery a few miles away. The settlers that populate it are under constant siege by a large group of marauders led by the muscle-bound Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). Max’s run-in at the beginning of the film was with members of this gang – one of whom survived and goes by the name of Wez (Vernon Wells). The two men will mix it up repeatedly over the course of the film.

Miller makes a point of showing just how ruthless these marauders are when a bunch of them intercept two settlers trying to escape in a vehicle. They are captured and after gravely wounding the man, rape the woman, killing her afterwards. This scene is important because it shows how the marauders differ from Max. He’s not like them. He may be an opportunist out for himself but there is still a shred of the good man he was in Mad Max.

Max bargains his way into the settler’s camp and visually Miller sets them apart from the marauders with their white tunics and body armor, which is in sharp contrast to Humungus and his black leather-clad bikers. We soon get a proper introduction to the nasty marauders with a darkly comic scene that sees Humungus announced as the “Ayatollah of Rock-and-Rollah” by one of his hapless subordinates (Max Phipps) who foolishly tries to catch a sharp, metal boomerang only to have several of his fingers lopped off. This scene also provides intriguing insight into the tumultuous relationship between Humungus and Wez, an impulsive mohawked biker, and his best enforcer. Miller does a fantastic job of conveying the dynamic of this gang by the way they act and how their attitude is embodied by Wez. It’s a fascinating albeit brief window into how they work, leaving us wanting more because they are such a colorful, outrageous bunch, much like the biker gang that terrorized Max in the first film.

The settlers are led by a man known as Pappagallo (Michael Preston) who dreams of escaping their compound with a tanker of gas to the ocean and he strikes a deal with Max to find a rig that will haul it. Of course, it’s never that easy as the film hurtles towards the inevitable confrontation between the marauders and the settlers. Along the way, Max is befriended by the Feral Kid (Emil Minty), a wild child whose only form of communication is grunts and growls, and who is the owner of the aforementioned boomerang. He, more than any of the other settlers, is responsible for awakening Max’s humanity, giving him something to care about once again. Despite his best attempts, the setters’ plight affects Max and, coupled with no other option left to him, decides to help them.

Mel Gibson delivers a deceptively complex performance as we see Max go from a man that cares only about himself to a man that helps others. It is a tough journey as he initially rebuffs the settlers despite Pappagallo nailing what makes Max tick: “You happy out there, are ya? Wandering, one-day blurring into another. You’re a scavenger, Max. You’re a maggot. You’re living off the corpse of the old world.” These words and prodding into his tragic past get to Max and he finally reacts emotionally – the first real time he’s done so since the film began. It’s a pivotal scene because it is the beginning of Max caring about something other than himself. Alas, it is going to take hitting rock bottom for him to finally come around. Gibson does a good job of showing the inner conflict playing out over Max’s face in this scene.

Bruce Spence’s gregarious Gyro Captain provides the film with welcome comic relief and he plays well off Gibson’s stoic Max. He, along with the Feral Kid, help humanize Max. The Gyro Captain talks a good game but is a bit of a scammer only to find a purpose among the settlers. Wez is Max’s opposite, a wild animal that has to be kept on a leash, literally, to curb his wilder impulses only to be cut loose when his primal instincts are needed. Miller sets up the conflict between them right from the start, having the two men cross paths repeatedly until the exciting climax where they finally settle things once and for all. Vernon Wells delivers a larger than life, muscular performance, playing a memorable baddie that is exciting and scary because Wez is such an unpredictable character.

Mad Max 2 culminates in a much-lauded extended chase sequence as Max drives a tanker truck through the marauders. The action is beautiful orchestrated vehicular mayhem as cars and people go flying through the air, metal is twisted and mangled – all in the pursuit of the precious gasoline. The end result is one of the best chase sequences ever committed to film. Everything has been building up to this point and we’ve become invested in not just Max’s story but also that of the settlers. We want to see them survive.

After Mad Max grossed $100 million at the box office, Warner Bros.’ international marketing division encouraged director George Miller and producer Byron Kennedy to make a sequel. For the latter, the impetus to make it came from liking “traditional Hollywood American film, and I want to make those sorts of movies.” Mad Max 2 was an opportunity for Miller to work with a larger budget of $4 million – ten times the amount of the first one, which was made for $400,000 – which allowed him to have better equipment. This enabled him to stage more elaborate stunts and shoot in a more remote location with a bigger, more professional crew. One of his frustrations making Mad Max was that he made it with a television crew that were used to doing things a specific way. His new crew, including cinematographer Dean Semler, was more adept and willing to “give anything a go – it’s crazy but give it a go, we’ll back you all the way.”

Miller started off with a basic story and a premise:

“That, suddenly, there would be no energy. No electricity. So, people would rush down to their supermarkets and take whatever was left in the refrigerators. They would find other people already there. There would be fights. We would have no gas for our vehicles. Very quickly, things would reach a Darwinian stage where human beings would have to survive as best they could. Some would, undoubtably, choose a brutal lifestyle, consuming whatever was left, since no more goods would be manufactured. But there would be pockets of people who would try to make a new beginning…”

For the marauders that terrorize the settlers, Miller imagined them as warriors:

“He would, therefore, need a bike for mobility, and also because it uses less fuel than a car. He would need to be protected, so he would need weaponry. If he can get a gun, he can’t find bullets, so he would fashion a kind of crossbow, which he would wear on his arm. That way, it’s also easier to fire when he’s riding a bike.”

Mad Max 2 was shot in the desert, in and around Broken Hill, a mining town 800 miles west of Sydney during the Australian winter of 1981 over 12 weeks with 120 crew members, 40 actors and over 80 vehicles.

Mad Max 2 received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The filmmakers have imagined a fictional world. It operates according to its special rules and values, and we experience it. The experience is frightening, sometimes disgusting, and (if the truth be told) exhilarating.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “It has no pretensions to do anything except entertain in the primitive, occasionally jolting fashion of the first nickelodeon movies, whose audiences flinched as streetcars lumbered silently toward the camera.” The Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris felt it was like “experiencing a motorized Stagecoach.” However, Pauline Kael wrote, “There are perhaps 10 minutes of spectacular imagery, and if you think of George Miller as one of the kinetic moviemakers, such as John Carpenter and George A. Romero, he’s a giant, but he’s pushing for more and he apparently doesn’t see the limitations of the kind of material he’s working with.”

While it’s true that Mad Max 2 spawned many imitators – a cottage industry of post-apocalyptic movies – no one has been able to top it, not even Miller with its sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), but he came close recently with the masterful Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which proved without a shadow of a doubt that he is still an action movie maestro par excellence.

Mad Max 2 is essentially a western masquerading as a post-apocalyptic story with cars and motorcycles instead of horses. Max is a hired gun who comes in to help a group of settlers defend their land from an army of vicious marauders. He is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name characters in the spaghetti westerns he made with Sergio Leone. Both characters are men of few words who prefer to let their actions speak for themselves. For all of its gritty action, Mad Max 2 is ultimately a mythic tale with Max as its iconic hero who we last see battered but not beaten, refusing to go with the settlers because he doesn’t belong in their world. He’s the classic uncivilized outsider, much like John Wayne’s character in The Searchers (1956), still out there, somewhere, surviving, as the voiceover narration intones with those classic last lines, “And the Road Warrior? That was the last we ever saw of him. He lives now…only in my memories.”


SOURCES

“Australian Screen: George Miller.” 2006.

Barter, Paul. “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Hotdog. February 2005.

Lofficier, Randy & Jean-Marc. “George Miller on Mad Max and The Road Warrior.” Starlog. September 1985.


Van Hise. James. “The Road Warrior.” Starlog. August 1982.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Day After Tomorrow

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Nature's Fury blogathon over at the Cinematic Catharsis blog.


I’m a sucker for disaster movies. The appeal of them is that they make me wonder, how would I handle such a dire situation? What would I do? Then, I get to play armchair quarterback and criticize all the mistakes the characters make in the movie. If I had to narrow it down, my favorite disaster movies are from the 1990s where every year it seemed like there were dueling efforts from rival studios – Independence Day (1996) vs. Mars Attacks! (1996), Volcano (1997) competed against Dante’s Peak (1997), and Armageddon (1998) went up against Deep Impact (1998). During this decade and beyond, Roland Emmerich was the reigning king of disaster movies with the aforementioned ID4 and Godzilla (1998). I’d wager he has killed more people in his movies than almost any other mainstream filmmaker.

My favorite movie of his is The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which wasn’t released in the ‘90s but feels like a holdover from that decade. Not since Armageddon has a film taken such a complete leave of its scientific senses. By that point, he had already blown up the White House and stomped all over New York City. What was left? How about a modern ice age that engulfs the northern hemisphere all over the world? At the time, people laughed it off as yet another far-fetched disaster movie from Emmerich but over the years, as our weather has gotten more erratic and the polar ice caps are melting, it is looking less and less like science fiction and more like something that could actually happen only much slower than what is depicted in the movie. Maybe he was onto something.

Emmerich doesn’t waste any time. Four minutes in and already people are in peril as climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) saves a colleague from being swallowed up by a seismic event as the Larsen Ice Shelf in the Antarctica breaks off and then risks his own life to retrieve some core samples. He is one of those savvy scientist protagonists that really knows what’s going on but can’t get the powers that be to take his theories seriously and so he’s shutdown at a United Nations conference about the alarming increase in global warming, or abrupt climate shift.

Of course, none of the politicians give him the time of day but we know that he’ll soon be vindicated when all hell breaks loose. I mean, it is snowing in New Delhi fer crissakes! Before long, grapefruit-sized hail pelts citizens in Japan as the movie’s body count begins. Soon afterwards, four tornadoes wreak havoc in Los Angeles erasing the Hollywood sign. Finally, the mother of all tsunamis pummels New York City.

The rest of the movie sees Emmerich juggling several storylines: Jack and his two assistants making their way across the eastern seaboard now buried in snow and ice. Jack’s wife Lucy (Sela Ward) is taking care of a terminal patient. Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), their son, and his friends are trapped in New York City having taken refuge in the New York Public Library. The most engaging storyline is Jack’s perilous journey, which has a grim action/adventure vibe as they navigate the dangers of the harsh environment that shows the extent of the new ice age they are experiencing.

Dennis Quaid brings his patented everyman charm to the role of Jack. I always liked him, from early roles in Breaking Away (1979) and Dreamscape (1984), to later work in Traffic (2000) and Far From Heaven (2002). He turns in good work as Sam’s estranged father who is too busy trying to warn influential politicians about climate change than being a good father. The actor gets the most out of small, character moments like the scene where Jack drives Sam to the airport. It effectively establishes their relationship and lets us know that he’s a good guy but needs to get his priorities straight, which, conveniently enough, this massive global disaster will allow him to do. Quaid is good at delivering dramatic dialogue like, “I think we are on the verge of a major climate shift,” and really sells it with utter conviction, and cliché lines like, “If we don’t act now it’s going to be too late,” and actually make it sound important, which is exactly what you want from your leading man.

Like Quaid, Jack Gyllenhaal works hard to deliver a performance clearly superior to the material he’s given. The actor uses his big, expressive eyes and youthful appearance to maximum effect, playing an inexperienced young man forced to grow up really fast. Soon, Sam is following in his father’s footsteps as he ventures outside to find medicine for one of fellow students and romantic crush Laura (played by fresh-faced ingénue Emmy Rossum). It leads him to a Russian cargo ship that was swept inland on the massive tsunami and froze itself close to the library. However, it isn’t that easy and he has to contend with a pack of wolves that escaped from the zoo, which Emmerich mines for every ounce of tension.

Veteran character actor Ian Holm gets to intone the movie’s initial warning that something bad is going to happen thus validating Jack’s theory. Sela Ward does a nice job of conveying selfless empathy towards her patient, doing her best to cut through Emmerich’s audio/visual emotional manipulation by keeping it real with a grounded performance.

Nitpicking a brainless big budget movie like this is a lesson in futility but there are some things that just take you right out of the movie because they are so glaringly obvious. First jump in logic: Jake Gyllenhaal is supposed to be a 17-year old high school student?! Too bad in real life he was 24-years-old. Maybe he’s following in the footsteps of Luke Perry in Beverly Hills 90210? Second jump in logic: the L.A. basin by nature is not realistically conducive to tornadoes because of its geography. But then the first warning sign should have been Perry King cast as the President of the United States. I guess Morgan Freeman or Bill Pullman were not available.

Also, we are supposed to believe that a beautiful young woman like Laura would pass up a good-looking guy like Sam in favor of some smug jock from a rival school? He’s probably rich but still. Thankfully, there are occasional glimmers of wit like when a Culture Club song plays at the post-academic tournament reception causing Sam to remark, “This place is so retro it might actually be cool if it were on purpose.” Gyllenhaal delivers this line with perfect comic timing and deadpan delivery. In a nice throwaway gag, Sam’s nametag reads, “Yoda.”

Admittedly, there are some impressive visuals on display here as Emmerich gets to play in an expensive CGI sandbox, unleashing tornadoes in L.A., giving us a money shot of four separate twisters wreaking havoc and in a lame fuck you to the industry as one takes out the Hollywood sign. This is just a warm-up for an impressively staged set piece when a massive tsunami slams into and floods New York City with Sam and his friends narrowly escaping its wrath, finding refuge in the New York Public Library. It’s quite a sight to see massive amounts of water engulfing the streets, tossing city buses like tinker toys. It also gives Sam a moment to heroically save Laura when she stupidly goes back to a taxi for some lady’s passport (really?!). For someone so book smart she has zero common sense. The moment exists so that Laura can see what a great guy Sam is and then we get a scene where the smug preppie is humanized as he tells Sam to tell Laura how he feels. Aw, how nice.

Emmerich is also quite adept at creating an eerie mood with an ominous shot of hundreds of birds fleeing across the New York sky or having an abandoned Russian freighter float ominously down the streets of New York. However, after the CGI-created natural disasters subside, the film settles into a ploddingly predictable adventure movie with the cast of talented actors doing the best they can with a weak script in dire need of doctoring.


The Day After Tomorrow is a predictable mixed tape of Twister (1996), Deep Impact (1998), and The Perfect Storm (2000). If you can get past the gaping plot holes and jumps in logic then you might enjoy this throwback to disaster movies from a bygone era – think Irwin Allen in the 1970s but only if he had CGI at his disposal. While its message of global warming is timely and even more relevant now, the obvious way it force feeds it to the audience is insulting to anyone with a shred of intelligence. It seems to suggest that the moral of its story is if you want to avoid a natural disaster, go to a library.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Nice Guys

In retrospect, releasing an R-rated buddy action movie at the beginning of the summer blockbuster season – amidst comic book superhero movies and children’s animated films – was probably not a good idea. The Nice Guys (2016), Shane Black’s throwback to a bygone era, has performed unremarkably. With this and the lackluster returns from his previous buddy action movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), it is both unfortunate and obvious that mainstream movie-going audiences no longer want to see the brand of violently comedic crime movies Black helped popularize in the 1980s and 1990s. They want movies that put an emphasis on sitcom-style comedy, eclipsed by sanitized action, and starring popular comedians like Kevin Hart (Ride Along) or Melissa McCarthy (The Heat).

I suppose one could see the writing on the wall with the massive success of the Rush Hour movies. Black even seemed to acknowledge this with Iron Man 3 (2013) where he had to disguise his trademark motifs under the guise of the Comic Book Superhero genre. Black’s unique stamp on beloved material angered Marvel fans, a poisonous dose of bad luck that followed him into The Nice Guys. This is a shame because for fans of R-rated buddy action movies, The Nice Guys is pure cinematic catnip and a reminder of how excellent this genre was and could still be.

Black takes us for a ride to Los Angeles, 1977, the opening credits playing over the funky grooves of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” by The Temptations, which sets the right tune for the right tone. After adult film star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) is killed in a car crash, aging enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) crosses paths with low-rent private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling), the former introducing himself to the latter by way of a verbal and physical warning: “Stop looking for Amelia (Margaret Qualley) by breaking his arm (“When you talk to your doctor, tell him you’ve got a spiral fracture of the right humerus…”).

Two thugs (Beau Knapp and Keith David) are also looking for Amelia and they pay a visit to Healy, trying unsuccessfully to squeeze him for information. It is a nicely written confrontation between dangerous men, quintessentially Shane Black as Healy talks his way out of trouble…with the help of a shotgun. He realizes that his case is somehow related to March’s and proposes they team up. The price is right for March – $400 – for the entire run of the case. Their investigation takes our heroes through the seedy underbelly of smog-infested L.A.

Russell Crowe hasn’t looked this loose and relaxed in a role in years as he looks like he’s having a blast playing a hired goon who actually gives a shit. Putting on weight for the role, Crowe uses his hulking frame and imposing presence effectively. His performance is the real revelation of this film as he demonstrates an unexpected penchant gift for comedy, displaying spot-on comic timing and a real knack for delivering Black’s stylized dialogue.

Ryan Gosling plays the private investigator that, unlike Crowe’s Healy, doesn’t give a shit anymore, hasn’t since the tragic death of his wife. He does easy jobs for chump change, barely supporting him and his daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). Over the course of their investigation, he does a complete 180 degrees and becomes personally invested, especially when their lives are repeatedly put in danger. March isn’t too bright; Black establishes this early on in a funny, throwaway bit of business that sees the private eye badly slitting his wrist trying to break into a bar. Gosling plays March as a lovable goofball who is part cowardly lion, throwing up whenever he stumbles across a dead body.

Not surprisingly – given what kind of film this is – the banter between Crowe and Gosling is a lot of fun to watch. Initially, their partnership is an antagonistic one but they soon bond not only saving each other’s lives but are given a moment where they reveal personal details about themselves. This is an important element, providing insight into their characters and what motivates them so that we, in turn, become invested in their journey.

With The Nice Guys, Black takes us back to the hedonistic ‘70s a time when people smoked everywhere, did drugs openly and pornos flaunted publicly on marquees downtown. This is particularly evident in a wild party that Healy and March crash at porn king Sid Shattack’s sprawling mansion…where many of the guests are also naked. Up to this point, the film had relegated its period trappings to the background but this scene allows Black to fully immerse us in a specific time and place. The soundtrack is interspersed with popular period tunes (featuring the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Bee Gees, and Kool & The Gang) with a score by David Buckley and John Ottman that evokes ‘70s crime shows like The Rockford Files (which is even referenced in the film).

Black expertly juxtaposes laugh out loud moments with jarring jolts of bloody violence that is the kind of darkly comic territory for which he is known. He doesn’t dwell on the more gruesome aspects like Quentin Tarantino does in many of his films, rather uses it to punctuate a given scene for a thrill or a laugh. Much like the bad guys in a buddy action comedy like Midnight Run (1988), the heavies in The Nice Guys have gravitas and are a legitimate threat to the heroes. Black’s not afraid to have a serious moment or two with real emotional weight, which raises the stakes for our heroes – and the moviegoer – in a big way.

With a Black movie you know what you’re going to get: it will be set during Christmastime and it will feature a mismatched duo consisting of an older burnout clearly too old for this shit and a younger, more energetic partner with serious issues. They will be saddled with a wise-beyond-their-years child, and come in conflict with an infallibly polite, well-dressed sadistic henchman that enforces the will of a powerful, older white man. Lethal Weapon (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), and so on adhere to this formula (with some variations). All of these elements combined together make him a unique voice within the studio system.

After finishing the screenplay for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and unable to get anyone to read it, Shane Black put it aside and began working on a new script idea in 2001 with his writing partner Anthony Bagarozzi about detectives in Los Angeles. They would each write a scene and show the other what they had written. Over time, it became apparent that they were writing an homage to classic detective novels they admired.

Originally, The Nice Guys was intended to be a feature film set in contemporary L.A. When Black couldn’t drum up any interest he changed it to a television show that CBS and HBO both passed on. In regards to the former, Black said, “The Standards and Practices were just going to kill us. They were so egregiously offended by even the most minor edginess.” Finally, it reverted back to a feature film but with Black deciding to set it in the 1970s. This change came from his fondness for the era: “The Hollywood sign was crumbling, and nobody was bothering to fix it. L.A. was this sort of Sodom and Gomorrah-type smog-laden porn pit. For the setting of a detective story, how much better can you do?”

Black insisted on directing the script himself and, at the time, nobody was interested until the success of Iron Man 3. He reunited with producer Joel Silver in 2010 and he shopped the script around Hollywood. Black recalls one studio executive telling him, “I’m sorry. We’re just not doing period pieces.” The writer realized that the executive “probably flipped through it and saw it was a film noir and thought it was set in the ‘40s.” Silver ended up raising the $50 million budget and sold the distribution rights to Warner Bros.

The producer showed the script to Ryan Gosling who, as it turned out, was a big fan of The Monster Squad (1987), a movie that he loved from his childhood, and that Black had co-written. He loved The Nice Guys script and agreed to star in it. Black wanted to cast Russell Crowe opposite Gosling but the actor wasn’t initially wasn’t interested. Black flew to Australia to pitch Crowe in person. The actor offered him a drink and Black, who was sober after several years of hard-partying, replied, “Oh, you know, you have one drink, and the next thing you know you’re in handcuffs.” Crowe remembers, “I thought, ‘Hmmm, I like this guy. He’s sharp.” What closed the deal was when Black mentioned that Gosling was attached to the project. Crowe had wanted to work with him for some time and agreed to do the film.

Black and producer Joel Silver probably felt that teaming up Crowe and Gosling would result in box office gold, but failed to realize that the former is no longer an A-list leading man, appearing in supporting roles in mainstream fare like Man of Steel (2013), while the latter is no longer a teen heartthrob, having diversified in recent years, appearing in art house fare like Blue Valentine (2010) or commercial flops like Gangster Squad (2013). While this may have done the film’s commercial prospect no favors, they both do fantastic work in The Nice Guys.

Ultimately, what has doomed the film commercially was not its release date (although, that didn’t help) but rather its audience – an older demographic that doesn’t go out to the movies very often and is instead content to wait for them to show up on home video. Black doesn’t have the same kind of commercial sensibilities as other directors of his previous material, like Richard Donner, Tony Scott or even Renny Harlin, who knew how to translate his screenplays into box office profit. The Nice Guys will probably be rediscovered by its intended audience on home video thus transforming it into a cult film with a dedicated following and “discovered” by the youth market when they finally age out of it.


SOURCES

Baron, Zach. “Why Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was 15 Years in the Making.” GQ. May 16, 2016.


Svetkey, Benjamin. “Lethal Weapon Wunderkind (and Former Party Boy) Shane Black is Back…and Still Looking for Action.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 13, 2016.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Bull Durham

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Athletes in Film blogathon over at Wide Screen World and Once Upon a Screen.


How does a film helmed by a first-time director with a leading lady the studio didn’t want, about a washed-up baseball player in the twilight of his career become not only one of the greatest sports films ever made but also one of the best romantic comedies for adults? When it’s made by Ron Shelton from his own screenplay and it stars Kevin Costner as the aforementioned player who used his industry clout to give the writer/director his shot and fought for Susan Sarandon to be cast. The end result is Bull Durham (1988), a funny, insightful and sexy look at minor-league baseball and the people that love the sport.

While Kevin Costner is the star, Bull Durham is really about Annie Savoy (Sarandon), a baseball groupie who hooks up with one player for the entire season, imparting her knowledge of not just baseball but also sex and how the two are intertwined for valuable life lessons. Shelton establishes this right from the get-go by having Annie narrate her own story via voiceovers. In her opening monologue she compares baseball to sex and religion, rejecting the latter in favor of metaphysics. She is savvy about what she does and has no illusions:

“I make them feel confident and they make me feel safe and pretty. Of course what I give them lasts a lifetime. What they give me last 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade but bad trades are part of baseball.”

This voiceover plays over footage of Annie getting ready and heading off to the ballpark with church organ music playing in the background, commenting playfully on her devotion to the sport as she concludes, “I’ve tried ‘em all, I really have and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the church of baseball.” Shelton proceeds to immerse us in the sights and sounds of the ballpark with shots of the team mascot, the section for the players’ wives, and a father with his sons. This conveys a sense of community, especially in small towns like this one where you get the sense that that there isn’t much else to do there.

The Durham Bulls are having a lousy season and what better time than to break in a new hotshot pitcher by the name of Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) who, when we meet him, is more concerned with figuring out his nickname then his professional debut. He starts and it is pretty obvious what his strengths are (a blistering fastball) and his weaknesses are – a lack of control as his first pitch goes flying into the stands. His next one hits the batter.

This intrigues Annie who asks fellow baseball groupie Millie (Jenny Robertson) what sex with Ebby is like and she offers up this memorable gem: “Well, he fucks like he pitches: sorta all over the place.” Shelton proceeds to give us a montage of Ebby’s wild pitches in amusing fashion. When the dust settles, the rookie has walked 18 players and struck out 18 – both league records.

After the game, “Crash” Davis (Costner) shows up telling the assistant coach (a hilarious Robert Wuhl) that he’s “the player to be named later,” brought in to hang out with Ebby and teach him how to play the game properly both on and off the field because he’s got “a million dollar arm but a five cent head.” The manager (Trey Wilson) informs Crash that Ebby is being groomed by a major league team. Naturally, Crash asks what’s in it for him to which the manager replies, “You can keep going to the ballpark and keep getting paid to do it. Beats the hell out of working at Sears.”

The first meeting between Crash and Ebby is a memorable one as the latter picks a fight with the former. Crash has already sized up Ebby and has a pretty good idea of what he’s like and taunts him, daring the pitcher to throw a ball at him, knowing that he’ll miss because he’s thinking too much about it. Ebby misses, of course, and Crash knocks him down with one punch, telling the rookie, “Don’t think. It can only hurt the ball club.” Annie decides that Ebby is going to be the player she is going to take under her wing but finds herself increasingly drawn to Crash.

Costner’s first appearance is an impressive one for how effortlessly and natural it seems. He walks in and is the character. You believe he’s a veteran player that has seen it all and grown tired of helping others make it to the big leagues. Bull Durham features one of his very best performances. He is particularly good towards the end of the film when Crash is told that he’s no longer needed on the team. Costner’s reaction when he’s told the news is well-played as the shock of it plays across his face and the actor conveys it in his eyes. It’s a really good bit of acting in a career defining performance. Another stand-out moment is when Crash imparts one last lesson on Ebby in a pool hall that crackles with intensity as the catcher has hit rock bottom and is jealous that the pitcher is being promoted to the big leagues while he remains in the minors. Crash lets his anger and bitterness out on Ebby in a really good scene that allows both actors to play well off each other.

Susan Sarandon brings an earthy sexiness to her role. Annie is not only very attractive but is also very smart. She certainly knows a lot about baseball and life, teaching Ebby some valuable lessons in ways that are funny. Shelton shows the contrast between her and Ebby and her and Crash when they finally hook up. With Crash, Annie is on much more even ground as they are both mature people that have been around the block more than a few times. This is evident in a scene where they get into an argument over breaking Ebby’s winning streak. It’s a real conversation that gives us insights into these two people as their attraction to one another is growing but they are afraid to commit because it might be something good and real.

Costner and Sarandon have really wonderful chemistry and this is readily evident from their first scene together. It really kicks in when Annie invites Crash to batting cage practice under the pretense of improving his swing but they cut right to the chase and find out that they have the same goal: to get Ebby ready for the big leagues. They also flirt like crazy with each other with Crash laying it out for her: “The fact is you’re afraid of meeting a guy like me ‘cause it might be real. You sabotage it with some, what is it, some bullshit about commitment to a young boy you can boss around.” It’s a really good scene because we are not only getting witty banter between Annie and Crash but they also get down to the heart of the matter – why she dates guys like Ebby and not someone like Crash.

Tim Robbins is brilliant as the clueless Ebby. It isn’t easy to play someone dumb and not come across as a caricature but the actor does it so well, like during Ebby’s first post-game interview where he offers his reaction to his first professional win: “It feels out there. It’s a major rush. I mean, it doesn’t just feel out there, I mean it feels out there. Kind of radical in a tubular way.” The way Robbins says these lines with a deer caught in the headlights expression is priceless. Throughout the film, the actor achieves just the right mix of cocky arrogance and cluelessness, providing funny comedic moments, like how Ebby breaks out a horrible cover of “Try a Little Tenderness” on the bus en route to the next game and gets the lyrics wrong (“Wooly”?!). As the film progresses, Robbins’ character undergoes a nice arc as we realize that Ebby isn’t really that dumb – he just lacks experience and that only comes with putting in the time and playing games, experiencing winning and losing streaks, and knowing how to deal with both.

Robbins and Sarandon have fantastic chemistry together and it isn’t hard to understand why they became a couple in real life. The scene where they first have sex is funny as Ebby is all in a hurry, quickly stripping down, while Annie tells him to slow down and ends up reading poetry to him instead.

The three lead actors are supported by a wonderful cast of character actors. There is Trey Wilson’s angry manager who tries to turn his team around and get them winning again. The actor brings an amusing gruffness to the role, playing well off of Robert Wuhl’s motormouthed assistant coach. He gets a funny moment during the iconic scene where his character approaches the pitcher’s mound during a game where several of the players have gathered, each with their own problem. Wuhl listens to the list of complaints and without missing a beat offers a solution that is quite funny.

Shelton’s screenplay is tight and chock full of wonderful truisms about baseball and life. It lets us into Crash’s head, showing how he thinks about baseball, like the internal debate he has with himself during his first at bat. We see how well he reads the game thanks to years of experience. We also see how superstitious some players are and how important the mental aspect is to how athletes perform. Crash spends most of his time teaching Ebby how to think or, rather, not to think about the game because he realizes that the rookie has great instincts and natural talent – he just needs to figure out how to channel it. To this end, Crash teaches Ebby interview clichés with gems like, “We got to play them one day at a time,” that we’ve seen actual players spout on television.

Shelton does an excellent job of showing the life of a journeyman ballplayer at the minor-league level, going from town to town. For every Ebby there are all kinds of Crashes that never make it and for them it is a job. That being said, Shelton still imparts a love for the game and how people in small towns all around America gather to cheer on their hometown team.

As Crash has grown tired of teaching young guys the fundamentals of baseball, Annie eventually grows tired of teaching young men about life and sex. She’s ready for someone like Crash who calls her on her metaphysical mumbo jumbo – only she doesn’t realize it until later in the film. As the film progresses, it asks the question, what do you do when you can no longer play the game? It becomes apparent that Crash’s knowledge about the sport would be better suited towards coaching and maybe that could be his path to the majors.

Ron Shelton grew up in Santa Barbara, California, graduating from Westmont College. He had always been a jock and wanted to be a professional baseball player. He ended up as a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles’ Triple-A team in Rochester, New York for five years but made it no further. “I had made my living as a baseball player…But I didn’t want to be an aging 15-year minor leaguer. I decided simply to make a change and not look back.” He quit in 1972, got married, had two daughters, and received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Arizona. He moved to Los Angeles where he painted as well as doing several odd jobs to support his family.

Shelton had wanted to write something about his experiences as a baseball player but didn’t have a story to go with the subject. During his playing days, he would spend his down time between games going to the movies. He finally came up with a story and wrote a screenplay entitled, A Player to Be Named Later about a veteran catcher and a wild rookie pitcher. When writing the script, Shelton wanted to include the notion that “most of the time in baseball is spent between the action.” He explained, “Most of my memories are of conversations on the mound or absurd arguments with umpires.” In addition, he wanted the film to “be about the players who were grinding it out trying to make a living in this game.” Shelton had known a lot of guys like Crash and guys like Ebby that “could throw a ball through a brick wall but who didn’t understand that if he didn’t take this seriously, he was going to be selling aluminum siding in five years.”

Shelton couldn’t sell his script but did get an agent. This led to him getting work on Under Fire (1983), rewriting the script for director Roger Spottiswode. The two men worked together again on The Best of Times (1986) where Shelton got a desire to write and direct his own film: “Movies are made up of tiny moments, and I really felt the desire to get down in the trenches with the actors and find those tiny moments.” He revisited his baseball script, reworking it and in doing so added new layers to the lead female character. Annie came out of Shelton “hating how women had been portrayed in sports movies, and from my love and respect for women.” When asked if Annie was based on anybody real, he responded, “Trust me, I never met anyone like her in the minors.”

Producer Thom Mount, who was also co-owner of minor-league baseball team the Durham Bulls, was, not surprisingly, passionate about the game: “Minor league ball is one of the last authentic bastions of small-town American life.” He had is own production company after spending years working in the Hollywood studio system. Mount hired Kevin Costner to be in a television miniseries but the network rejected the actor because he wasn’t a star. The producer felt differently.

When Mount met Shelton and read the script, he wanted to make the film and suggested Costner as the lead character. Originally, the actor was going to do either Eight Men Out (1988) or Everybody’s All-American (1988) but when he read Shelton’s script, he was impressed by the level of detail. Shelton’s original wishlist of actors to play Crash included Costner, Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell and Harrison Ford. Costner was the first one to say yes. As it turned out, Shelton was a fan of Costner’s work in Fandango (1985) and Silverado (1985). Despite being a natural athlete, the actor insisted on auditioning for Shelton at a San Fernando Valley batting cage. Shelton was impressed with Costner’s natural ability, which included being a switch-hitter.

Mount shopped the project around Hollywood and was turned down twice by every studio because baseball movies were not considered commercially viable at the time. Finally, Orion Pictures executives read the script. The studio was already making another baseball film at the time – Eight Men Out with John Sayles – and Costner didn’t think they’d go for a second film. Eighteen hours later Shelton was given an $8.5 million budget. Orion had made No Way Out (1987) with Costner and were convinced that he was going to be a big star.

For Ebby, the producers wanted Charlie Sheen but he had already committed to Eight Men Out. Orion wanted them to meet with Anthony Michael Hall. When the actor met with Shelton he showed up late and hadn’t read the script. Tim Robbins was a baseball fan and had been up for both Eight Men Out and Bull Durham, choosing the latter. The studio didn’t like him, however, perhaps as a result of his appearance in the high-profile flop Howard the Duck (1986), and Shelton threatened to quit if he wasn’t allowed to cast him.

Shelton also had to fight the studio over casting Susan Sarandon as Annie. Executives felt that her career was already over, was too old and not funny, and wanted Kim Basinger. Initially, Shelton wanted to Ellen Barkin but she passed on it. The studio wasn’t even willing to pay for Sarandon’s flight to L.A. (she was living in Italy at the time) but after reading the script, she paid her own way. The actress remembers, “I knew I had to put my ego aside and just go for it.” She met with studio executives and charmed them.

The conflicts with the studio over Robbins and Sarandon didn’t end there. During filming, executives were worried that the former wasn’t funny enough. After seeing dailies, then studio head Mike Medavoy called Shelton on the set and ordered him to replace the actor. Shelton threatened to quit if Robbins was fired. On the second day of dailies, one of the film’s producers confided to Sarandon that she didn’t look good in her close-ups. Shelton exploded and went after the man, telling him, “You ever talk to my actors again, I’ll kick your fucking ass.”

In order to accurately portray baseball in the film, Mount brought on Pete Bock as a baseball consultant. Bock was a former semi-pro ballplayer, spent three years as a pro umpire in the Appalachian, South Atlanta and Carolina leagues before spending several years as general manager of the Durham Bulls. He recruited several minor-league ballplayers and ran a tryout camp to recruit an additional 40-50 players for the game scenes. He also hired several minor-league umpires. In addition, Bock conducted two-a-day workouts and practice games with Robbins pitching and Costner catching. Bock said of the two actors – Robbins had “a lot of raw talent...But he didn’t have the mechanics down,” and Costner was “outstanding” and “amazing…We kidded him if he’d give up movies real quick, we’d sign him.” He made sure the actors performed like ballplayers (wearing their uniforms properly and standing correctly in the field) while also making sure the ballplayers acted.

Shelton scouted locations in the southern United States before choosing Durham, North Carolina – Mount’s hometown – because of its old ballpark. Shelton didn’t get the greenlight until late in the year and so Bull Durham was filmed in October and November. It was cold and the grass was changing color. The production staff had to repeatedly paint the baseball field green. In addition, many of the game scenes were shot at night to hide the fact that the leaves were turning brown.

According to actor Robert Wuhl, he came up with his character’s dialogue for the memorable pitcher’s mound scene. A week before shooting it, he was talking to his wife about a wedding gift to get a friend and her response is what he used in the film! Orion wanted to cut the scene because it had nothing to do with the plot but Shelton argued, “There is no plot. The movie is well-structured, but there’s no plot.” He even had to convince the studio to film the scene.

Interestingly, a Los Angeles Times profile on the film at the time suggested that Sarandon was aloof to the cast and crew, refusing to give interviews, even to the Orion film crew that had flown in to do a video press kit. They even quoted an anonymous cast member as saying, “Susan plans to see a rough cut of the film before making a decision to do any press. If she then does any interviews, it’s like she’s giving her blessing.”

Bull Durham received positive critical notices. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “I don’t know who else they could have hired to play Annie Savoy, the Sarandon character who pledges her heart and her body to one player a season, but I doubt if the character would have worked without Sarandon’s wonderful performance.” Pauline Kael called it a “sunny romantic comedy” that “has the kind of dizzying off center literacy that Preston Sturges’ pictures had.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Shelton: “As a director, he demonstrates the sort of expert comic timing and control that allow him to get in and out of situations so quickly that they’re over before one has time to question them. Part of the fun in watching Bull Durham is in the awareness that a clearly seen vision is being realized. This is one first rate debut.” Sports Illustrated’s Steve Wulf wrote, “It’s a good movie and a damn good baseball movie.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson praised Costner’s performance: “For once Costner has role that he can sink into, that fits his skills, and he shows enormous authority and charm…and with this one performance, he emerges as a true star presence.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “In the same vein, Annie, for all the tough/soft dimension that Sarandon gives her, is really a paper-thin vehicle for a man’s warmest imaginings.”

The first half of Bull Durham is in definite romantic comedy territory fused with a sports movie and then by the last third it integrates more dramatic elements when the Bulls lose after a winning streak and Crash is kicked out of the game for mouthing off to the umpire. It marks a significant turning point for the three main characters as Ebby finds out that he’s been promoted to the majors and Annie ends their relationship and starts one with Crash. The last third also takes on a slightly somber tone mixed with humor as Crash has to figure out what to do next. It’s a master class in how to depict a believable romance between two adults that is sexy without being too explicit. Shelton achieves just the right mix, which may explain why Bull Durham still holds up after all these years.

One of the things I like the most about Bull Durham is that you feel like you’ve been on a journey with these characters. They’ve changed in significant ways by its end. Crash and Annie learn that baseball isn’t everything and that what they have together is more important as he tells her at the end of the film, “I got a lotta time to hear your theories and I want to hear every damn one of them but now I’m tired and I just don’t want to think about baseball and I don’t want to think about nothing. I just want to be.” It’s a great sentiment to end the film on and Shelton makes sure we feel good about it with the final shot of Annie and Crash dancing in her house. In the wrong hands, this could have been too silly but because of where Shelton has taken these characters over the course of the film, we feel that they’ve earned it.


SOURCES

Goldstein, Patrick. “An Outta-the-Ballpark Look at Baseball.” Los Angeles Times. June 21, 1988.

King, Susan. “Ron Shelton Lets His Baseball Flick Stand as is for its Release on Special-Edition DVD.” Los Angeles Times. April 2, 2002.

Loverro. Thom. “Bull Durham, 25 Years Later.” Sports on Earth. June 11, 2003.

Mansfield, Stephanie. “A Dangerous Man.” GQ. October 1992.

Modderno, Craig. “Can Orion Hit and Run with Bull Durham?” Los Angeles Times. January 10, 1988.

Nashawaty, Chris. “Worshipping at the Church of Baseball.” Sports Illustrated. July 9, 2012.

Silverman, Jeff. “Creator of Bull Durham is Rounding Third and Heading for Redemption.” Chicago Tribune. July 29, 1988.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Consultant with Cleats.” The New York Times. June 10, 1988.