Bull Durham is the best baseball movie ever made, bar none. You can have your Field of Dreams or your A League of their Own or The Babe Ruth Story, for those of you with terrible taste, but for me, there is no contest, Bull Durham is THE BEST. Funny, smart, romantic, sexy and quotable, Bull Durham goes even beyond baseball and into the realm of simply being a great movie.
Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is playing out the string of a long career in minor league baseball. He’s been everywhere in baseball, dozens of teams, endless bus trips, and innumerable cities, he’s recently just woke up in Durham, North Carolina with the Durham Bulls. An unnamed major league team has picked up Crash to come to Durham to help work out the kinks in a strange young pitcher with a million dollar arm and five cent head.
Eppy Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins) is rangy and throws hard but he has little control of his gift. It’s obvious if someone can get Nuke to throw straight he could be a major league starter with the talent to be an all-star. Crash wants nothing to do with saving the kid’s career, he’s more interested in Annie, Durham’s biggest fan and a baseball guru in her own right. Annie seems to have interest in Crash but she’s also attracted to Nuke’s talent and untapped potential.
Each year, Annie choose a Bulls player to take under her wing. She has a track record of helping guys improve their game and Nuke appears to be just the kind of project, in both baseball and life, who could benefit from her help. Naturally, this rubs Crash the wrong way leading to conflict between he and Nuke. In a conventional movie, the plot would turn gears to bring these characters into familiar conflicts before a pat, predictable conclusion. But that’s not what Bull Durham is.
That’s not to say that Bull Durham is an art picture with no plot and a series of unconnected scenes, the film is unconventional but not oblique. Bull Durham is a movie about pace and style and personality. The film proceeds like a great game of baseball, a patient, at times exciting, at time meandering but consistently entertaining. The film has the ebb and flow of a game and a wonderful conclusion as when your team wins in the end.
You don’t have to be a sports fans to love Bull Durham. The film is about baseball and the script and characters rhapsodize about the game but these characters remain fascinating in a way that goes well beyond genre niche. The characters speak in a unique fashion, they relate to each other in the homey fashion of people who live in a small town, who live on top of each other, always in each others business. If you can relate to that, you can relate to Bull Durham, baseball or no baseball.
Director Ron Shelton somehow never reached the heights of Bull Durham ever again. His obsession with sports narratives drove him to try and recreate the magic of Bull Durham with the basketball movie White Men Can’t Jump, the boxing movie Play it to the Bone, and Shelton’s last good effort and the one that comes remotely close to capturing the same sphere as Bull Durham, the golf movie, Tin Cup.
It’s not unfair to wonder if Costner is more of the secret ingredient of Bull Durham than writer-director Shelton. That’s not to take anything away from Shelton’s smart script and stylish direction, but it would not be the same without Costner’s explosive charisma. Costner is a movie star and an actor, both out of this world handsome and serious about his craft. He makes the rest of the cast better just sharing the screen with him and his chemistry with Susan Surandon is downright molten lava levels of hot.
The supporting cast, headed up by comic Robert Wuhl, and Jennie Robertson adorable Millie, round out the near perfect universe of Bull Durham. These supporting players are remarkably well used, they lend personality and comedy to the movie in just the right places and create that homey, warm, comic atmosphere that makes the film so remarkably relatable. Wuhl even gets, arguably, the best comic moment of the movie when he plays arbiter of the teams many, many, strange issues in a visit to the mound mid-game. A curse, Nuke’s eyelids, and a wedding gift equal comic gold in Wuhl’s rapid, energetic hands.
I love Bull Durham so much. This movie is spectacularly brilliant. And now, thankfully, in time for its 30th Anniversary, Bull Durham is receiving the Criterion Collection treatment. The film is receiving a brand new 4K transfer to improve the original print, overseen by director Ron Shelton. There will also be a pair of commentary tracks, one with Shelton and the other with Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins and several other features. The movie itself would be enough for me but I appreciate the Criterion Collection’s hard work.
The Criterion Collection Edition of Bull Durham goes on sale July 11th.