Navigating the cliché-clogged, slippery-slope obstacle course of the feel-good family film genre has to be one of the hardest challenges of modern moviemaking. The slightest misstep can send a picture spiraling irreversibly toward a wet crash-landing in a puddle of pandering, manipulative, paint-by-numbers pap.
Add to the mix the often hackneyed nature of baseball movies, not to mention that mantra of liberty-taking film fabricators everywhere -- "based on a true story" -- and you've got a recipe for a Disneyesque disaster.
So the fact that "The Rookie" is a nearly impeccable cinematic experience -- and a warm, wonderful, all-ages triumph besides -- is a miracle akin to the story the film portrays. It's about a high school baseball coach and science teacher whose quashed major-league ballplayer dreams come belatedly true at the age of 35.
Some dramatic license has been taken in the casting of 47-year-old Dennis Quaid as Tampa Bay Devil Rays relief pitcher Jim Morris, but almost everything else that seems unbelievable in this movie is true. Morris did discover that he was throwing harder than ever while drilling fastballs to his student players in ironically arid Big Lake, Texas. After noting that the kids weren't playing with any heart, he did make a pact to try out for the majors if they made it to the state playoffs. He did stun the Tampa Bay scouts at a tryout camp, bringing the heat at 98 mph and earning him a spot on their farm team, the Durham Bulls. And he did, soon thereafter, make his major league debut, striking out the Rangers' Royce Clayton in front of a cheering crowd of 40,000 (including half the population of Big Lake) at the ballpark in Arlington, Texas.
Director John Lee Hancock must have learned his craft at the side of Clint Eastwood while Eastwood helmed Hancock's adaptation of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," because "The Rookie" approaches this amazing story with a similarly easy-going pace that affords the characters time to develop a deep, identifiable humanity without wasting scenes on unimportant specifics. We learn Morris's plans for a baseball career were sidelined by an injury, but Hancock doesn't bother with a flashback of how it happened. We see the large scar on his shoulder, and that's enough to understand its significance.
Morris's military brat childhood under the thumb of his indifferent, tough-love father (Brian Cox) is depicted through a series of early episodes in which the obstinate young Jimmy practices his pitching in snow in New England, rain in Georgia and on a pathetic, sun-beaten patch of dirt that passes for a baseball diamond when the family finally settles in West Texas.
As Quaid takes over the roll, Jim has already given up his athletic aspirations and settled into a comfortable life as an adoring husband (underrated Aussie actress Rachel Griffiths plays his wife with a perfect Texas drawl) and father of three. But the itch is still there, and in one of the movie's best scenes, Quaid stops on a roadside in the middle of the night to whip baseballs past one of those trailer-hitch radar monitors with a digital readout that says "your speed is..."
When Quaid pitches, his face becomes severely pinched with the kind of sincere concentration that can come only from an egoless, fully immersed performance. He truly rallies the audience behind him as the film hits several climaxes on its way to the big league finale.
The high school team has their big game in the middle of the movie, and Hancock has such a command of the picture's emotions that he can induce goosebumps for this scene while saving plenty of excitement for later. A similar sensation comes when Morris sneaks off to the major league tryouts without telling his wife what he's up to. Discouraged by seeing dozens of young players who've come in uniforms, he approaches the mound in jeans, pushing his youngest daughter in a stroller, then proceeds to stun them all. "If I call in a guy twice these kids' age, I'm gonna get laughed at," the Devil Rays scout tells him. "But if I don't call in a 98-mph fast ball, I'm gonna get fired."
"The Rookie" has plenty more such moments in store, all of them depicted with honest sap-free emotion and pure cinematic joy (huge kudos to cinematographer John Scwartzman's beautiful, creative camerawork).
The movie does have a few notable, avoidable gaffes. Players from the high school's rival team look more like 30-year-old prison escapees. The Morris family's financial struggles during his minor league days feel more like fiction than fact. The sound effect Hancock employs when Morris "brings the heat" is conspicuously overused.
But "The Rookie" does so much so flawlessly it's easy to forgive such minor foibles and just get caught up in its exceptional, contagious spirit. This may be one of the all-time great baseball movies.
Run time: 127 mins
In Theaters: Friday 29th March 2002
Box Office USA: $75.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $75.6M
Distributed by: Buena Vista Distribution Compa
Production compaines: Walt Disney Pictures, Gran Via Productions, 98 MPH Productions
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Fresh: 126 Rotten: 25
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Dennis Quaid as Jimmy Morris, Rachel Griffiths as Lorri Morris, Beth Grant as Olline, Angus T. Jones as Hunter Morris, Brian Cox as Jim Morris Sr., Chad Lindberg as Joe David West, Angelo Spizzirri as Joel De La Garza, Jay Hernandez as Joaquin 'Wack' Campos, Rick Gonzalez as Rudy Bonilla
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