Writer/director Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Singles) manages to
combine all the odious elements of modern day sports; crass,
self-involved athletes, huckstering owners, sycophantic
journalists, duplicitous agents and gross commercialisation into
a very engaging, wryly observant romantic comedy. Jerry (Tom
Cruise), an uber-agent for a prominent sports firm, develops a
crisis of conscience when he realises he's become just another
shark in a suit, a conniving mountebank who cares more about
accumulating money and clinching deals than he does about the
welfare of those he's supposed to be representing.
When a mission statement he writes outlining his theory of
servicing less clients and giving them more personal attention
leads to his sacking, he starts a new firm. An accountant Dorothy
(Renée Zellweger) and one client, Rod Tidwell, (Cuba Gooding
jnr, who won an Academy Award for his role) accompany him.
The film's depiction of the materialistic nature of sports is
on the mark. Tidwell's wife knowingly talks about shoes, cars,
clothing line and soft drink as the four jewels of the celebrity
"The strengths of the film are
The glory of victory, the nobility of competition, the joy of
participation - such values have less cachet in the contemporary
sports arena, where success is measured as much in tv ratings and
the size of player contracts as it is in winning, or even
The strengths of the film are its performances, particularly
Zellweger and Gooding, whose character lives by the credo of
‘Show Me the Money’, its exploration of modern
relationships, and its affectionate treatment of its minor
players. These include a support group of divorced women, Chad,
the jazz-buff baby-sitter, and Jonathan Lipnicki as Zelwigger's
smart as a whip kid. What is less satisfying is how the issue of
greed in sports is resolved. In a film populated by the most
eloquent of characters, ultimately it's money that talks.
Before Kevin Costner became the auteur of expensive
self-indulgent pseudo-science fiction epics, he made a habit of
starring in some beautiful low key films set in small-town
America. Directed and written by Ron Shelton, who would go on to
make White Men Can't Jump and Tin Cup, Bull Durham is the story
of a season in the life of the Durham Bulls, a minor league
"I believe in the soul, the
cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back"
Costner plays Crash Davis, a canny veteran catcher and slugger
who made it briefly to "The Show" in the major leagues,
but now has been shunted down a peg to play adviser to Ebby
Calvin LaLouche (Tim Robbins), a young pitching prospect with
"a million dollar arm and a five-cent head."
Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is the team groupie/consultant,
who takes it upon herself to hook up with one player per season
and in this case LaLouche is the lucky recipient of her
attention. She delivers lessons in metaphysics, baseball, love,
poetry and life.
As much romantic comedy as it is about the minutiae of
baseball, the film sparkles with sharp lines such as Costner's
ode to the good life: "I believe in the soul, the cock, the
pussy, the small of a woman's back ..." and some percolating
love scenes. What Bull Durham underlines particularly well is how
sports has the capacity to enrich ordinary lives.
When We Were Kings
For those who chiefly associate Muhammad Ali with the Parkinson's
Disease-affected person who feebly lit the flame to open the
Atlanta Olympics, the documentary When We Were Kings will provide
a shock. The film charts "The Rumble in the Jungle",
one of the most renowned boxing showdowns of all time, fought
between Ali and a ferocious George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.
"We gonna get it on because we
don't get along,"
Ali is a charismatic, loquacious, boastful, funny athlete, who
draws people to him as powerfully as he repels opponents. He is
in his early 30s when the bout takes place - Ali liked to talk,
telling anyone who’d care to listen: "We gonna get it
on because we don't get along," and, "If you thought
the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I kick
The preparation for the fight is fascinating. We see both
fighters working themselves into shape and there is interesting
footage of the side characters, Africa, and the rock concert that
took place in conjunction with the fight.
If the action captured was only of the bout, it would still be
compelling, visceral cinema, but commentary from writers Norman
Mailer and George Plimpton, interviews with James Brown and a
Shakespeare-quoting Don King make this movie much more than just
a fight flick. In conjunction with the badass music of Brown and
co, the display of early-seventies fashion, When We Were Kings
captures the early 70s zeitgeist and in the end serves as an
illuminating cultural document.
The ubiquitous Gene Hackman has forged a career by being
eminently versatile, but is at his best when playing villains,
such as Lex Luthor in Superman and Little Bill in Unforgiven - or
men of dubious nature. In Hoosiers, set in the 1950s, Hackman's
role veers towards the latter. He plays a basketball coach who
was calling the plays for a big time college program, but was
forced to leave in disgrace when he manhandled one of his
players. The last chance to redeem himself is to mentor a small
high school out in the picturesque Indiana countryside.
"This is not new-school hoops
Building on the common theme in sport films that mistakes,
while can't be undone, can at least be atoned for, the wily coach
sets about taking his charges as far as their talent will allow.
Obstacles arise along the way, however, that have to be dealt
with, such as the star shooter who won't play ball and assistant
coach Dennis Hopper's problem with drink.
Though the action scenes are compelling, this is not
new-school hoops on display. Here the free throws are shot
underhanded, Richie Cunningham style, the shorts are tight and
the action is below the rim. Way below. But as in Rocky, the
whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and feel counts for
Several films have portrayed life on the rink: the whiz of
skates, the gliding of the Zamboni machine, the sudden explosion
of hockey between melee. There's been Youngblood, which starred
Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze, and the Mighty Ducks franchise
films. The best representation of minor league ice hockey, however, and
the funniest, is Slap Shot. The Charlestown Chiefs,
captain/coached by Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), are going
After the mill shuts down in town, and the club loses its
tenuous supporter base, word is the Chiefs are going to be
dissolved. That's when Dunlop hits upon a cunning plan. With the
help of a local sportswriter Dick "I was trying to capture
the spirit of the thing"
Dunn, Dunlop invents a potential buyer for the club. And to
get Charlestown folk interested in their team, he introduces
smashmouth hockey so that almost overnight, the Chiefs become
The most effective snipes are the Hanson brothers, three
bespectacled, long-haired hitmen who strap aluminium foil to
their knuckles, but away from the rink play with toy cars
"because they're too dumb to play with themselves".
"This is a film made in the
days before audience testing,"
The character parts; the team flake Dave "Killer
Kowalski", Maurice, the low rent lech, Ned Brayden, the
college boy who won't get with the program, are played for laughs
without resorting to stereotype. The final game of the season, a
matchup with a goon all-star unit from Syracuse, is a classic.
The radio play by play man sums up the denoument, and some
would say the game itself, eloquently: "Everybody's on their
feet yelling 'Kill Kill Kill'. This is hockey." It's obvious
too, that this is a film made in the days before audience
testing, with a strange but satisfying conclusion.
Although Stallone would go on to make four sequels, the original
remains the best. This is Rocky taking advice from sagacious
trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and whacking unsuspecting slabs
of meat. Pounding the pavement in the frosty dawn, with the
strains of his own theme echoing in the background, Rocky learns
self respect. Okay, so it's sentimental and corny. So what?
"I'm gonna beat you like a
The sequels are a mixed bag, but that doesn't mean they can't
be enjoyed, either. Rocky II is the follow-up, when the eponymous
hero gets another crack at the jewelled belt. Rocky III is really
bad, but in a so-bad- it's-good way as Mr.T stars as the
obnoxious Clubber Lang, and gets to deliver inimitable lines such
as: "I'm gonna beat you like a dog," and "I'm
gonna torture him. I'm gonna crucify him. Real Bad." Our
hero loses his edge and has to regain the mystical Eye of the
Tiger before he finds it again. Also featured is a cameo by Hulk
Hogan as wrestler Thunder Lips.
The fourth in the series has Rocky transformed into an
instrument of American propaganda and world peace while Rocky V
sees the series peter out as Rocky becomes trainer to real life
boxer Tommy Morrison.
Not all sport takes place in shiny, cathedral-like stadiums.
Sometimes the action is in a dingy lane, where the street is dark
with something other than night, conflicts don't get resolved and
it isn't happy ever after. This is the territory The Hustler
"It's one of the best indoor
sports, feeling sorry for yourself."
Paul Newman is Fast Eddie Felson, a nickel and dime pool shark
who has the game's most renowned player, Minnesota Fats (Jackie
Gleason), in his sights. After self-destructing against Fats the
first time he plays him, Felson drifts off and eventually hooks
up with Sarah (Piper Laurie) a boozy broad who tells him,
"It's one of the best indoor sports, feeling sorry for
yourself." And that's before Felson gets both his thumbs
broken when he hustles in the wrong place.
Eventually Felson is taken under the wing of Fats' manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) but doesn't realise what he's sacrificed before it's too late. Shot in black and white, with a smooth jazz score, The Hustler is tough to categorise, because it doesn't adhere to a contemporary formula. In many ways its sequel, The Colour of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese, and for which Newman won an Oscar, is a more engaging film.
Chariots of Fire
Outside of the stirring score and genuinely affecting performances, what helps makes this film so absorbing is the fact that it is based on a true story. Set in the lead-up to the 1924 Olympics, it tells the tale of missionary Eric Lidell and Cambridge student Harold Abrahams, focussing on their inspiration and dilemmas. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture.
Field of Dreams
Baseball has provided fodder for some decent, if flawed films, including The Natural, Major League and Eight Men Out. Field of Dreams tackles some different territory, tapping into the notion established in Bull Durham that baseball is a religion full of magic, cosmic truth and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time. And even if it isn't, and can be a boring game to boot, at least it can be the background for a quirky film such as this.
Costner this time plays Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer who hears voices that command him in turns to build a baseball field in the middle of his wheat crop and then collect a famous writer and watch a baseball game with him. "If you build it they will come," the voice commands. No sooner is the field in place than Shoeless Joe Jackson, a famous player who was embroiled in a game-fixing scandal while playing for the Chicago Whitesox, appears with a couple of other baseballing ghosts. While most sports films deal with endeavours on the fields of play, this is concerned far more with the lives away from it. Field of Dreams tries too hard at times - hey what do you expect from magic realism? - but if you set aside your cynicism for a little while it's also quite touching.
Some films leave you with a warm feeling in your stomach after watching them. You feel inspired by the ability of individuals to overcome adversity and better about the human condition afterwards. This is not one of those films, and at times it has to be endured rather than watched.
Yet Robert DeNiro's performance as Jake LaMotta, who acted as a consultant on the film, is mesmerising. Enormously courageous and talented, but petty and self-destructive, La Motta has to fight his own demons as much as anything, and like many real life fighters, never seems to conquer them.
"His efforts (for his acting, not for his eating) won De Niro an academy award. "
As might be expected from a Martin Scorsese epic, this is a film laced with attitude, grittiness and power. Made in beautiful black and white, the boxing scenes are shot to seem claustrophobic, so that we feel like one of La Motta's hapless foes. Dead meat. We see the shonky world of Machiavellian promoters, thrown fights and simple justice. "Shuddup, or I'll slap you," La Motta tells his second wife, of whom he is painfully and irrationally jealous. De Niro is outstanding in the title role. As the fighter in his prime, he was said by La Motta's trainer to be capable of stepping in the ring for real, and his hooks and uppercuts are delivered every bit a convincingly as his lines.
Famous for his preparation for his parts - he plucked his hairline to play a bald Al Capone in The Untouchables - De Niro went on an eating tour of Italy to beef up for the girthy older La Motta, who ends his days as a " take my wife"-type stand-up comic in insalubrious establishments. His efforts (for his acting, not for his eating) won De Niro an academy award. Along with Bladerunner, Raging Bull is considered by many to be one of the best films of the 1980s.