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Movie Reviews : 'Major League' in a League by Itself

April 07, 1989|KEVIN THOMAS

"Major League" (citywide), an amiable and amusing hot weather diversion, trusts mightily that the Cleveland Indians and their fans are blessed with a good sense of humor.

Taking note of the fact that the Indians haven't won a pennant since 1954, writer-director David Ward imagines that the team has been inherited by a hard-hearted ex-Vegas show girl (Margaret Whitton). Her notion is to hire such a bunch of losers that attendance will plummet and she'll be able to move the franchise to Miami, a city with a climate much more to her liking. (There will also be a Palm Beach mansion for her as part of the deal).

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the recruits won't turn out to be the deadbeats Whitton expects them to be. Ward, who won an Oscar for his script for "The Sting" and more recently adapted "The Milagro Beanfield War," deflects predictability with admirable deftness. He does this with generous doses of humor and affection, a clear love and extensive knowledge of baseball and the Indians--who he says he's rooted for since he was 5 years old--and a starry cast that gets into the good ol' boy spirit of the story.

Tom Berenger's Jake Taylor is a playboy now in his 30s with such bad knees he hopes for just "one more season in the sun." Charlie Sheen's Rickie Vaughn is a punker, just finishing doing time for car theft, a kid with a fast ball but no control. Corbin Bernsen's Roger Dorn is a talented third baseman whose mind is more on money than baseball; he's more interested in preserving his profile for TV commercials than with exerting himself. Burly, seen-it-all manager Lou Brown (James Gammon, always a pleasure), recruited reluctantly from his tire business--and unaware of his employer's true intentions--has his work cut out for him in shaping up a team that also includes Wesley Snipes as a rookie with the wonderful name of Willie Mays Hayes and Dennis Haysbert as a voodoo-practicing Cuban emigre. Bob Uecker, a canny, witty standout, is the Indians' jaded but game radio announcer, and elegant newcomer Rene Russo is the beauty that Jake let get away and is determined to win back.

Ward directs his actors as adroitly as he has written for them, and the vulnerability that he allows his three stars to reveal is really what makes the movie work. No one, not even baseball fans, should go to "Major League" hoping for "Bull Durham's" sex, raunch and sophistication. But "Major League" (R-rated for language) has its own ingratiating charm.

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