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Costner takes another swing at mixing baseball and romance. 

He Got Game

OK, no need for the film critic umpire to call me for balking. I'll come right out with it: No, "For Love of the Game" is not as wonderful as "Bull Durham."

It is, however, an entertaining all-American tale about the game of baseball and the game of love. While it's not Costner's personal best, "For Love of the Game" scores a modest comeback for him.

This fitfully uneven sports romance has enough heart and enough hardball to keep both genders watching — although baseball fans will find much more to love than starry-eyed romantics. The explanation for that comes from the movie's director, Sam Raimi. As big a fan of baseball as Costner, Raimi gets the camera into the game like no one else has ever done. Many times it is to the detriment of the love story.

While some romantics may pout, lovers of the sport will be giddy with Raimi's muscular approach to visualizing the game. I was awed watching Raimi capture the speed, sound, arc and intensity of powerhouse pitches. Fastballs, curveballs, Raimi makes you feel them from the pitcher's wind up to that satisfying thwack! when it slams into a bat or the catcher's mitt. Fans of Raimi from his "Evil Dead" days may be taken aback by his ramrod-straight storytelling. But they won't be disappointed.

Nor will the legion of Costner fans. As aging pitcher Billy Chapel, Costner once again has found a character that seems to mirror his personal mix as both a romantic lead and a jock. The picture starts off with a sentimental title sequence showing us a montage of home movies and graphics of Michigan Little Leaguer Billy Chapel growing up and making it to "The Show" as a Detroit Tiger. (Those scenes of Billy playing catch with his dad are really little Kevin with his father.)

But when we meet Chapel, something's missing — from his game and from his life. The Tigers are in last place and for some reason, team manager Frank Perry (J.K. Simmons) has decided to pitch Chapel against the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium. Chapel's preferred catcher, Gus Sinski (John C. Reilly), is dead-set against it. But that's only the half of it. In a series of contrived and unconvincing plot moves, Chapel is stood up by his fashion-mag girlfriend Jane (Kelly Preston) and is told the team's been sold to a corporate group whose first official act will be trading him to San Francisco. When he finds Jane in Central Park, he learns she's moving to London for a new job. Reeling from his earlier news, she tells him their parting shouldn't trouble him. After all, he needs the game more than he needs her.

The mood of the film turns somber and thoughtful when Chapel takes the mound in that momentous game. He knows this may be the last game of his career and he does a mental rewind of the key moments from the last five years. Although Raimi and Costner show a fondness for Billy's and Jane's romance, it's not their main interest. And frankly, Preston is no Susan Sarandon. The chemistry between the stars is workmanlike — just enough to keep the plotline going.

Those editing the movie's trailer astutely picked the movie's one romantic line to highlight: Billy asking Jane how she likes to be kissed. In a split-second "Bull Durham" fans remember the famous Costner monologue on kissing that left Sarandon — and most of the females in the audience — limp. The effect is not quite the same here.

Ah, would that it were. Then, "For Love of the Game" would really score.

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