Dir John Lee Hancock US 2002 127mins
The Rookie is an earnest and uplifting baseball saga structured along the lines of the equally fact-based and inspirational Remember The Titans, also produced by Disney. Rendering one of his most accomplished performances yet, Dennis Quaid plays ageing Texan baseball player Jim Morris, who gets a second chance to fulfil his lifelong dream. Although soft in its narrative and old-fashioned in its style, the film benefits from its two-generational plotline, which will be crucial in drawing young audiences to a story about a middle-aged hero. The Rookie may not repeat the commercial success of Remember The Titans in the US, in which Denzel Washington turned in an inspired performance despite the soggy material. However, it should do mid-level business for an appealingly low-key, uniquely American fable that aspires to the league of Hollywood chestnuts like Kevin Costner's Field Of Dreams. Overseas, its prospects will be affected by foreign appetite for the attached cast and the truly American subject matter.
The Rookie is a film that's determined to prove that, contrary to what F Scott Fitzgerald said ("there are no second acts in American life"), America loves comeback stories of ordinary heroes who never give up on their dreams. That the story is inspired by the actual life of Morris lends added credibility to this folk tale.
A flashback shows how Morris played baseball as a young man before injury forced him to retire without making it to the big leagues. The story proper is then centred on a seemingly quiet, middle-aged man, who has now settled down to a family life with his loving wife and kids in Big Lake, Texas. For a while he appears fulfilled, working at the local high school as a chemistry teacher and baseball coach.
Still, as audiences know from watching such sagas, something basic is missing from Morris's life, and a troubling inner voice and latent ambition refuse to let go. In 1999, the coach makes a bet with his school team that threatens to throw his stable life out of equilibrium. To motivate his racially diverse team of losers and ambitionless kids, Morris accepts their challenge: to try out for the Major Leagues if they win the district championship.
After a quiet start that documents Morris's uneventful but happy life with wife Lorri (Griffiths) and family, the story gains much needed momentum from the training sequences of Morris and his students in the field. Predictably, the bet proves to be a strong incentive for the team, which goes from worst to being first, making the state playoff for the first time in the school's history.
The second half of the rather long and dragging picture shows the pressures on Morris, who is now forced to live up to his end of the deal. As the oldest player he is, at first, literally laughed off the try-out field. But gradually, calling on his stamina, energy and ambition, Morris manages to confound the scouts, and himself, by clocking up 98 mph fastballs. Eventually his record is good enough for him to be signed up for a minor league affiliate team.
Despite its locale and realism, watching The Rookie is like taking an extensive survey of great American baseball films of the past half-century, including Gary Cooper's The Pride Of The Yankees, Robert Redford's The Natural and the aforementioned Field Of Dreams. Director Hancock, who wrote Clint Eastwood pictures such as A Perfect World and Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, gives the saga an old-fashioned style, marked by long shots and framing that allows his actors to breathe. But he is not very adept at pacing, which lacks punch even in the climactic scenes, and overall leaves a lot to be desired.
The screen career of Quaid, still a vastly underestimated actor, has suffered from his modest but proficient performances. His work in The Rookie, in which he excels as an amiably rakish player, is also a companion piece to his 1988 film, Everybody's All-American, a 25-year saga of a college football star, who suffers disillusion in late life.
Griffith is adequate in her limited role - that of a loyal, self-sacrificing wife who carries the financial burden while Morris is gone - as are the rest of the cast. As a follow-up to his impressive turn in Crazy/beautiful, up-and-coming star Jay Hernandez stands out among Morris's students. Shot on location, in and around Arlington and Austin in Texas, cinematographer John Schwartzman gives the film the verisimilitude that it needs and deserves.
Pro co: Gran Via Productions
US dist: Buena Vista Pictures
Int'l dist: BVI
Exec prod: Philip Steuer
Prods: Gordon Gray, Mark Ciardi, Mark Johnson
Scr: Mike Rich
Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Prod des: Barry Robison
Ed: Eric L Beason
Music: Carter Burwell
Main cast: Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths, Jay Hernandez, Beth Grant, Angus T Jones, Brian Cox