Bruce Willis in a grubby vest. Cameron Diaz wearing a bikini. Mr Kevin Costner and baseball. Some things just belong together. Kev may have cornered the market in costly turkeys (Waterworld, The Postman), but slap a cap on his head and put a mitt on his hand and you'll begin to remember what you liked about him in the first place.
Two of Costner's biggest successes to date, Bull Durham and Field Of Dreams, revolved around America's national pasttime. And while For Love Of The Game lacks the sizzling sexual chemistry of the former and the whimsical fantasy of the latter, it's still a compelling conclusion to Costner's baseball trilogy, thanks to some stylish direction from Sam Raimi, a notable supporting cast and a central romance which, for once, doesn't have you reaching for the nearest sickbag. Clearly inspired by such giants of the game as Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, Billy Chapel is a perfect role for Kev, who has always excelled in parts that combine stoicism, integrity and charm. This time, though, he's no angel in the outfield, but a flawed, difficult taskmaster whose sporting triumphs on the diamond are matched by romantic failure off it. He's not one for forming lasting attachments. In fact, the most stable relationship he's ever known is with his trusty catcher Gus (who at one point boasts: "I've got the ugliest wife in baseball!"). As played by Paul Thomas Anderson regular John C Reilly, Gus provides the only light relief in a portentous potboiler which, at times, comes dangerously close to disappearing up its own flashbacks.
Unlike Ollie Stone's cynical Any Given Sunday, For Love Of The Game adopts a dewy-eyed, rose-tinted view of its sport. As the film begins, Billy discovers not only that his family-owned team is about to be sold, but that he himself is going to be traded to the Giants. Short of having Bob Dylan do a walk-on, it's hard to think of a more obvious way of saying the times, they are a-changin'.
But where Raimi's movie works best is in showing the camaraderie of this all-male profession (such as Chapel helping a fellow player in his recovery from an embarrassing fumble), or how one simple boo-boo (Billy cutting his hand while he's busy sawing a block of wood) can put an entire career in jeopardy.
You could argue the world needs another baseball movie like an elephant needs a tutu, yet For Love Of The Game is so stubbornly old-fashioned it's hard not to surrender to its stirring visuals and feelgood plot. And Raimi, who since Evil Dead has assembled an impressive body of work spanning a variety of genres, directs with assurance to create an uplifting sports drama in the tradition of Pride Of The Yankees and The Natural.
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Not quite pitcher perfect, with baseball references that'll be lost on British audiences and much evidence of last-minute tinkering. However, Costner's unusually vulnerable performance makes this a return to form after the sickly Message In A Bottle.