Former minor leaguer Ron Shelton hit a grand slam with his directorial debut, one of the most revered sports movies of all time. Durham Bulls devotee Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon)—who every year takes a new player under her wing (and into her bed)—has singled out the loose-cannon pitching prospect Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a big-league talent with a rock-bottom maturity level. But she’s unable to shake Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), the veteran catcher brought in to give Nuke some on-the-field seasoning. A breakthrough film for all three of its stars and an Oscar nominee for Shelton’s highly quotable screenplay, Bull Durham is a freewheeling hymn to wisdom, experience, and America’s pastime, tipping its cap to all those who grind it out for love of the game.
Ron Shelton’s directorial debut Bull Durham receives a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection and is presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The master comes from a new 4K digital restoration scanned from the original camera negative.
The colours on this release have already caused controversy online amongst fans. Though I think some are blowing it way out of proportion it’s also unfair to say the reactions are completely unwarranted. Admittedly it’s such a crap shoot comparing to the original Blu-ray because it wasn’t all that great itself: it uses a much older high-def master that looks processed and has colours that I thought were kind of muddy and mediocre to begin with. I think the image, as presented here, does look better in comparison overall to that old release, colours looking to be saturated better, with nice whites and skin tones, as well as better contrast. There is a but to that, though, and the but is the noticeable green-ish tint that creeps in there. Overall I didn’t find it too big of an issue but it does push the blues more towards a teal, predominantly the Durham uniforms, where most of the internet rage is directed. Some shadows on the white uniforms can also take on that teal tint and nighttime sequences, along with rainy/overcast scenes, also lean that way. Still, considering everything around colours, I wasn’t repulsed by what we got and in most cases I thought the colours did look better in comparison to the muddier image of the old Blu-ray. But yeah, even then, I can’t deny that teal push is a bit much.
That aspect will be enough to turn people away from this edition and it is unfortunate because outside of the colours this presentation easily trumps every other aspect of the old MGM/Fox release. There is nothing film-like about that old release and it’s clearly an older master made with only DVD in mind. Criterion’s offers far more detail and depth and renders film grain superbly. The image here is sharp and clean and in regards to the encode I can’t fault it: it’s clean with no glaring digital problems. Thanks to all of these improvements I do prefer, by a large margin, Criterion’s new presentation, but those blues don’t help my case for it in any way.
Criterion, as expected, includes the original 2.0 surround track along with the 5.1 remaster created for previous home video releases, both in DTS-HD MA. Though the film does have some surround activity most of the audio is focused to the fronts. Surround activity, in both tracks, is generally limited to crowds cheering and action on the field during the game sequences, as well as some of the music that pops up. The 5.1 track does split some of the effects between the two back speakers rather impressively and doesn’t sound forced, but that’s about all the difference I could distinguish between the two tracks.
Still, quality is clear and both present dynamic mixes and outstanding fidelity and the track is clean, free of distortion and noise (the commentary tracks present some noticeable distortion in the film audio that appears so I’m guessing some corrections have been done over time). You can’t really go wrong with either in the end and it will just come down to personal preference.
The film has become a sort of dependable staple for MGM and Fox, with new DVD and Blu-ray editions popping over the years, from special editions to simple cover changes. Oddly Fox’s previous Blu-ray editions lacked the special features found on previous DVD editions (dual-format editions had the features on the DVD) so Criterion does correct this by porting most of the features from them.
First up are two audio commentaries: the first recorded by Ron Shelton for MGM’s 1998 DVD edition, and then the second recorded by actors Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins for the 2001 special edition DVD. The Robbins/Costner one is probably the weaker of the two but it is not without its charms and ends up being rather fun. The two talk about their attraction to the project, which was primarily through Shelton’s script, and how they built their performances and worked off one another. There are stretches of dead space as the two sort of fall in to the trap of just watching the film (early on they catch themselves but every once in a while fall into that trap again and again) but what can usually be an irritating weakness to a track ends up being adding a bit to the fun since the two usually start laughing at some of the scenes or dialogue.
The track is fun but for more meat viewers will want to turn to Shelton’s track. Shelton based a lot of the elements in the film (including the Voodoo chicken bone cross thing) on his own experiences and what he witnessed while in the minors himself and he shares all of that here, along with his primary motivation in making the film (basically he has never been a fan of most “sports films” feeling that Hollywood never got them right) and gets into a staggering amount of detail about writing the script. Shelton also recounts the editing process and showing the film to test audiences, which of course leads to discussion about a lot of deleted scenes and sub plots (also brought up in the Costner/Robbins track), though oddly these scenes are nowhere to be found on this edition.
I have never listened to this track or any track featuring Shelton before, but it’s a rich one, Shelton keeping the pace going and always filling in great details, even technical ones (right down to the type of equipment needed to properly capture a ball hit). Despite the rather thorough nature of this track Shelton manages to expand on things in a new interview between him and scholar Michael Sragow. Though the two talk a little about material covered in the track (and in other features found here) the interview is more of a focus on sport films in general, Shelton explaining in more detail what he wants in a sport film, and why some highly regarded ones, like Pride of the Yankees, don’t work for him. But he also talks about the ones that do work, interestingly The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and This Sporting Life being tops on his list. I was expecting, firstly, that this interview was just going to be a general discussion about the making of the film but it ends up being a wonderful discussion on the genre. It runs 19-minutes.
Criterion then includes a couple of featurettes from the previous MGM DVD special editions. Between the Lines: The Making of “Bull Durham” is a fairly run-of-the-mill making-of documentary from 2001, running a breezy 29-minutes. It features interviews with Shelton, Costner, Sarandon, Robbins, producer Thom Mount, actor Robert Wuhl, former ball players, and more. It covers the usual subjects you’d expect, and does repeat some information from the commentaries, but it’s still worthwhile for some stories, particularly an expanded explanation on Robert Wuhl’s infamous audition, Wuhl explaining why it went so wrong (and why he still ultimately got the part). Another featurette, 2008’s The Greatest Show on Dirt, gathers together former and current minor league ball players, broadcasters, and sports writers to talk about the accuracy and legacy of the film. Shelton also appears again, covering some of the same topics as before, but this time he offers more on how he wanted to present sex in the film (he wanted to make it fun again). It’s a bit fluffy in the end but the comparisons between what is represented in the film and real life in the minors proves to be fairly valuable.
Criterion then digs into the NBC archives, first with a 4-minute excerpt from a 1991 episode of Today covering Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball (a mascot that also appears in the film), and then a 3-minute 1993 NBC Nightly News story about the closing of Durham Athletic Park and the opening of the new field for the Durham Bulls. It’s mentioned in other features as well but apparently the film made the team (and the minor league in general) more popular and the stadium just couldn’t support the size of the crowds anymore. Both segments are short but they are two rather great inclusions.
The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer and the included insert features reprints of excerpts by New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell on Bull Durham, the best sports film he has ever seen, along with a new short note written for this release.
As it is the supplements are fine: they’re fun to go through and are surprisingly informative. Yet I still can’t help but feel this is a wasted opportunity and I am a little astonished Criterion didn’t work to provide more. I really enjoyed the Shelton/Sragow interview and it would have been wonderful if Criterion delved a bit more into the subjects covered there. Criterion also oddly cuts out a special feature from the old MGM DVD about the minor leagues and doesn’t replace it with their own material, leaving another gap. And where are all of these deleted scenes that we hear so much about? Are they lost? It’s an odd time in the home video industry when a third party label can get their hands on a big studio staple, one I’m sure they wouldn’t have been able to get their hands on even a couple of years ago, and then have it feel as though they are just trying to get it out as quickly as possible. Again, the supplements are fine, but there isn’t a huge improvement over what MGM put together previously.
I’m a bit conflicted over this one. What’s odd is I did like this release, but even then, it’s not an easy one to recommend. In many areas this new presentation easily blows away the old Blu-ray edition for the film, but I can’t deny those colours, particularly the blues, look off. I also can’t say anything all that bad about the supplements that have been included, but then it’s a letdown that Criterion has only recorded one new feature, mainly recycling the older MGM features, and not even all of them. Maybe one worth picking up during a 50% off sale.