Selleck scores as a ballplayer in Japan

October 02, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The last time you saw "Mr. Baseball," it was about detectives. The time before that it was about auto assembly workers. Lord knows how many permutations it went though before then.

A rude, self-absorbed American is forced by unruly circumstances to engage the culture of Japan, with its emphasis on self-denial and team, its crunching work ethic, its elaborate social rituals of decorum of respect and its hunger for little bits of cold fish. First he whines, then he acts up and, finally, he melts down and, having absorbed the wisdom of the East, is somehow reborn with a Japanese soul and becomes a better man for it.

The goat-hero this time is Tom Selleck, that amiable lug, and the milieu is not law enforcement as it was in "Black Rain" or automobile manufacturing as it was in "Gung Ho," but baseball. The movie is quite predictable; and it's quite enjoyable in spite of that.

Selleck is cast as a long-ball hitter named Jack Elliott who, despite a World Series MVP award, has pretty much played out his string in the bigs. When a rookie phenom comes along, in its casually cruel way, baseball abandons Jack, exiling him to Japan.

Jack is quite a creation, and it's clear that a.) Selleck has hung around the majors long enough to pick up a thing or two and b.) that what he's seen and what he brings to the role isn't all romance. His Jack is a selfish boy-man, his personality formed (or misformed) by a jock culture that valued his ability to hit the taters over any other thing. Too many bourbons, too many bimbos, too many pop-ups lost in the lights, he's developed into a surly loafer under that expensive haircut.

Welcome to Japan, Jack. For your first event, you will duckwalk with baseball bats suspended in each hand while you sing the team anthem. At 6:30. In the morning.

The movie cleaves to a well-trodden path, but it's beautifully acted and beautifully filmed. The great Australian director Fred Schepesi ("The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith") in the midst of a less distinguished American career ("Roxanne") still retains a fresh eye. For one thing, he appears to have a great fondness for the game itself and he really gets you inside it: It has a more realistic sense of team culture than, say, "Bull Durham" or "Major League," even given the fish-out-of-water gimmick imposed on the materials.

His vision of the game -- lightning fast, played for keeps in the dirt -- is impressive, too, though it helps enormously that Selleck is evidently a gifted athlete himself and when he fields a grounder or swings for the seats, he looks as if he knows what he's doing. He's got that big-cat grace of a jock. It also helps that the producers paid 50,000 screaming Japanese to sit in the stands during the filming; there's none of that World Series-played-in-front-of empty-seats nonsense.

The plot hits each base squarely, without surprise. There's a pennant race, a home run record, love affair with a beauty who turns out to be manager Ken Takakura's daughter, a few too many sushi and noodle jokes and, of course, Selleck comes to bat with the game on the line, two down and the sacks loaded.

The pleasures of "Mr. Baseball" are to be found elsewhere: in Selleck's easy amiability even when he's a jerk, in a work-up of the Japanese major leagues from a foreigner's point of view that is fascinating, and in the general fellowship of the players as team cohesion grows, infectious on screen as in life. For those slipping into terminal depression because the local ball team is three games shy of hanging up the spikes till next year, "Mr. Baseball" may lengthen the season for a couple of hours.

'Mr. Baseball'

Starring Tom Selleck and Ken Takakura.

Directed by Fred Schepesi.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG-13.

***

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