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Costner's Grand Slam 

*For Love of the Game (PG-13)
Universal

Following Kevin Costner's brooding, weepy, nonsensical romantic hero turn in Message in a Bottle, I admit I held out little hope for this baseball romance. But just when you think Costner has forsaken interesting characters for outrageously overblown mythic heroes (Waterworld, The Postman) or for plain old saps (Message), the guy hooks up with an interesting director and resurrects the most lovable part of his acting psyche -- he becomes, once again, the irresistible actor who starred in Bull Durham and Tin Cup.

For Love of the Game, based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Shaara and directed by Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan), is as good a sports movie as you could ever hope to see, portraying over two hours' time, a single, riveting baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers. Costner's Billy Chapel pitches for Detroit in what will likely be his swan song -- at age 40, Billy has sustained a few recent humiliating seasons and a bad hand injury, but the old boy's still got a smokin' fast ball, and on this outing, he's pitching for his very soul.

Just prior to the game, the love of Billy's life (aside from baseball), Jane (Kelly Preston) announces she's moving to England and it's over between the two of them. So while sitting in the dugout between innings, Billy slips into flashback, trying to figure out exactly what went wrong.

In lesser hands, the flashback device would be corny. But here, thanks to Preston's fresh performance and to director Raimi's fine depiction of the nuances of the baseball dugout, it works. The five-year duration of Billy and Jane's romance, it turns out, was substantive, not just the cravings of a star-struck ingenue inflicted on a boneheaded, gorgeous-looking jock. The character of Jane is complex and believable, played with gusto by Preston in her first real star turn. And Billy, as downplayed by Costner, is stubborn, witty, willful, focused and vulnerable -- in other words, he is fully fleshed by both the script and the actor.

The most charming aspect of For Love of the Game, however, is the film's depiction of the pitcher's inner monologue while on the pitching mound. It is as if, finally, we are offered some genuine insight into the pitcher's tension during the game, his observations on the rest of the playing field, his non-verbal communication with the batter. The notion of baseball as a "head game" takes on new meaning.

John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights) gives a delightful, quirky performance as Gus Sinski, the Tigers' catcher and Billy's best friend, and young Jena Malone is strong as Heather, Jane's wise young daughter.

Only near the end does For Love of the Game sink to using film gimmicks -- extreme-slow-motion shots, choirs of angels singing -- to simulate significance. And in one scene, late in the game, Billy hallucinates his dead parents in the stands, symbolically in black and white, cheering him on. None of this was necessary. By this point in the film, the viewer is so wrapped up in the outcome of the game, in Billy's pitching and in the course of his romance with Jane, that these are merely intrusions.

Costner has openly criticized Universal for cutting some sex and language out of the film for the PG-13 rating, but the cuts are not obvious. For Love of The Game is well-paced and wraps up just in the nick of time. Costner, whose own directorial efforts have been notoriously long-winded, should be grateful for the brevity. It just serves to accentuate his character's finer points, and to make Billy Chapel's final game an absolute blowout.

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