Image A Sound B+ Extras B
starring Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl, Lolita Davidovich
written and directed by Ron Shelton
by Walter Chaw Completely uncompromising in a way that films, especially sports films, just aren't, Ron Shelton's Cobb is one of the most effective hagiographies in film history not for the way that it elevates its subject to sainthood, but for the way that it allows its subject to be one of history's most notorious, relentless miscreants. A malcontent in every measurable way, Ty Cobb--habitual spousal abuser, virulent racist, sadist (Cobb sent twelve men to the hospital one season), alcoholic, braggart, trigger-happy pistol-brandisher, alleged murderer, and so on--also happens to be the best baseball player in the history of the game. (In a modern era where Barry Bonds is making a claim for the best the game's produced while also being, hands down, its biggest jerk and public-relations nightmare, Cobb's transgressions puts all of Bonds's childishness in perspective.) Accordingly, the picture is a beautifully lensed nightmare, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shot as a road-trip horror film instead of an acid-enhanced carnival ride, where the villain is the devil in Cobb's back pocket.
As the titular outfielder, Tommy Lee Jones finds the perfect role for his feral intelligence, managing to do the impossible by infusing one of the worst people of all time with enough vulnerability to actually inspire empathy. After a harrowing rape scene that stops short only of penetration, one that makes a pretty strong case for the idea that rape isn't about sex so much as power (dinosaur feminists nod sagely, but I suggest that at some level rape is always about sex--a discussion for another day), Cobb's frustration at his impotence, as played by Jones, is at once pathetic and strangely evocative of a universal bogey: a fear of decrepitude, abandonment, and death. The exchange--she says, "If you kill me, I'll be dead, and you're not gonna screw a dead lady," he says, "I might like it"--is absolutely chilling in its delivery and force. That at some level Cobb is about progeny and immortality more than the lionizing of a grand fiend is a testament to Shelton's unflinching handling of the material and to Jones's performance, which transcends the fire-breathing showiness to become something that almost encapsulates a century-and-a-half of American history in all its ugly machismo.
Opening with a newsreel mock-up à la Citizen Kane, the first and fatal flaw of Cobb is that it begins its story proper with the execrable Robert Wuhl as sportswriter Al Stump, meeting a roundtable of sports writer cronies to debate in portly Algonquin masturbation. Wuhl is entirely incapable of delivering a performance that isn't self-aware and in the process of commenting upon itself. A stand-up comedian who fell into a few plum roles during the late-Eighties and early-Nineties, most notably in Batman and a couple of other Shelton flicks (Bull Durham, Blaze, and the Shelton-scripted Blue Chips), Wuhl is a meat Muppet with the gift of making every role an exercise in self-conscious mugging and unconscionable artificiality. A scene where Wuhl's Stump "gently" cradles cigarette girl Ramona's (Lolita Davidovich, Shelton's Rebecca Pidgeon) face is akin to a gorilla smelling a flower. Like every other scene that doesn't include Jones, it's flat and unconvincing.
The introduction of Ty Cobb rivals the stygian introduction of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, with Jones ensconced in an imposing, snow-shrouded manor shot in a lush cameo-lit colour scheme, one that reminds of DP Russell Boyd's early work with Peter Weir (in addition to Cobb being the last Shelton film worth a damn, it's also the last Shelton film to look good). Stump is met at the door by an enraged servant (Lou Myers) before being shot at from behind a closed door--it's Wuthering Heights in its horror-tinged architectural gothic (occasionally made "Wuhlthering Heights" by Wuhl's tireless incompetence--a disingenuous moment towards the end when Stump appears to have channelled Cobb's limitless fury mainly highlights the difference between Jones and Wuhl as actors), and the odyssey the pair undertakes from here to a Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York to a return to Cobb's native Georgia and a visit to the family plot is one marked by revelations that Cobb, despite his myriad faults, is really only as pathetic as the rest of us, albeit ratcheted to a ridiculous volume. It's that amazing humanism at the core of Cobb that transcends its casting problems; admittedly, even Wuhl's unforgivable performance ultimately contributes to the picture's harshness.
Warner releases Cobb in a DVD package that, at first glance, doesn't betray the multitude of extras and the care in translation within. The disc is a beaut: a wealth of supplementary materials married to a technical transfer that pays proper tribute to Boyd's astounding cinematography. Denied wide theatrical release by the studio after a spate of early pans from major print dailies, there seems at least some attempt to make amends with this long-delayed platter. Beginning with a 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer that reproduces the picture's lurid, saturated colour palette (all deep reds and greens), Cobb looks as good as it probably can look and sounds, in its booming Dolby Surround audio mix, as good as it probably ever has. Showcase moments abound, with a harrowing car-ride into Reno a highlight.
The first of two commentary tracks features a well-spoken Ron Shelton, who details his philosophy and disappointments with the picture while giving no insight as to why he seems to be at his best when he's at his ugliest. Indispensable for any student of the picture, Shelton's track stands in harsh counterpoint to a second yakker featuring separately-recorded commentators Jones and Wuhl--Wuhl most likely isolated for his own protection. Where Jones only speaks up for a total of about ten minutes, his statement that he didn't have much sympathy for the Stump character sounds to my ears like not much appreciation for Wuhl. Meanwhile, Wuhl dominates with his idiot observations and false modesty; a moment where he observes that he isn't very good in the picture and spends altogether too much time mugging for the camera isn't self-effacing so much as accurate and sad, particularly when Wuhl does a bad Sean Connery impersonation while relating some anecdote about the Scottish institution and his alarming lack of insight into the financial failure of the film. Wrapping up with a ridiculously pious proclamation that "sports stars aren't heroes, the people who died in the World Trade Center are heroes" (no, they're victims of a terrorist attack), Wuhl erases any doubt as to why his career post-mid-Nineties consists of a premium cable series featuring sports heroes, and a procession of typecast cameos as loud-mouthed assclowns.
Short featurettes mostly disappoint. "The Real Al Stump" shows a few brief moments of the aged journalist on set, while "On the Field with Roger Clemens" shows the Yankee hurler's cameo as a period pitcher in a series of B-reel perspectives. Ho hum. "Additional Scenes" are a handful of context-less scenes--one of which is a phone call not taken from Ernest Hemingway--that either don't do much to further the plot or don't feature Jones prominently enough; extended bits involving the dissolution of Stump's marriage also find their way to the cutting room floor and good riddance. Not remastered, the deleted scenes actually serve as a nice comparison for appreciation of the final product. The package, a snapper fashioned with so little artistry and information that it resembles at first glance something from the early days of Warner's quickie discs, finishes off with a theatrical trailer that so accurately reflects the darkness of the film, it's small wonder the massage-hungry public (and popular criticism) balked at seeing it. Originally published: September 29, 2003.