Alongside Out of Africa, The Natural represents the last significant entries in Robert Redford’s career as a top movie star. Later to reinvent himself as a guru of indie-film-making via Sundance, Redford was smart enough to forge a career when audiences were no longer blown away by his golden boy looks. But in his heyday, he was happy to trade on them, and this adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel is a serious-minded baseball story that elevates Roy Hobbs (Redford) to near Messianic-levels. Glenn Close plays his sweet girlfriend, Barbara Hershey is a predictably dark femme fatale, and Robert Duvall dispenses homilies. The problem with The Natural is that for all the sumptuous period detail evoked by Barry Levinson’s direction, the feel-good ending, straight out of a late Rocky movie, is completely at odd with the book’s conclusion, and takes the King Arthur theme far too literally. With a magic bat called Wonderboy instead of Excalibur, The Natural is a literate and intelligent film that sells-out at the crucial moment.
Tennis is generally something of a disaster area for films; fine for a single scene (Strangers on a Train), a feature film tends to come off the rails (Players, Wimbledon). For films like Borg Vs McEnroe, the narrative feels like a long build up to a climax that can’t match up to the actual event. Jonathan Drayton and Valarie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) take the media circus around the tennis challenge match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and dial back the obvious comedy potential; the film is light, but there are hidden depths in the portrayal of women fighting against male domination. Emma Stone and Steve Carell both personify their characters well, despite not looking much like them physically, and Bill Pullman has an effective villainous turn. The final match itself is fairly rousing, as Riggs comes undone in a public humiliation, and King reigns in a crowd-pleasing finale; for some reason, the crowds didn’t turn up for this enjoyable film, but perhaps streaming will redeem it for the ages. There’s also some nice support from Andrea Riseborough as King’s lover and Fred Armisten as a drug-peddling supporter of Riggs.
It’s astonishing to think that an spin-off from the Rocky films was an awards contended in 2015. Not that Ryan Coogler’s film isn’t good, it’s probably the strongest since the original film, but it’s a measure how culture has changed that Creed was hailed as being important. Of course, the key here is a reversal; instead of beating up a black man (Apollo Creed) in the ring, Sylvester Stallone is now the aging trainer, and Michael P Jordan’s Adonis is the son of the late boxer. If there was racism inherent in the original film, and that’s very much an arguable point given Stallone’s own ethnicity and outsider status, Creed does a lot of vanquish any such accusations. The training scenes are well done (one single-shot bout is outstanding) and it’s kind of fun to see Apollo Creed’s shorts handed down like a holy relic. And even if the ending rings far too few changes on the winning formula, Creed is a neat inversion of a classic trope for more PC times.
Somehow lost in the awards shuffle, Ron Howard fashioned an excellent sports picture from a Peter Morgan script. Morgan’s usual balancing out of two competing characters (Frost Nixon, The Other Boylen Girl, The Queen) is well suited to the sporting rivalry and one-upmanship between James Hunt and Nikki Lauda, two iconic figures brought vividly to life by Liam Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl. Hunt’s playboy lifestyle is captured with affection, losing out in love to an off-screen Richard Burton. Lauda broods, despite the affections of Olivia Wilde, and overcomes incredible odd to maintain his alpha male battle to the end. Few directors can marry character and plot as deftly with Howard, offering the same verisimilitude as with Apollo 13, Backdraft and A Beautiful Mind.
Sport comedies are usually sentimental affairs; George Roy Hill’s reteaming with Paul Newman after the period charms Burch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting was anything but, shocking fans of both the star and director with its foul-mouthed account of ice hockey rivalry. Originally planned as a documentary by writer Nancy Dowd, Roy Hill dallied with Al Pacino and Nick Nolte before casting Newman as Reggie Dunlop, an aging ice-hockey star whose prepared to use every dirty trick in the book to keep his flagging career from ending. The skating action is fluid, with many real players on the ice, and Newman is as convincing in is gentler romantic scenes as in the ferocious brawls.