Retroactive Review: Night Game

Night Game gives new definition to “the hook.”

The Houston Astros find themselves at the center of a brewing scandal that has the potential to be seismic. Locals are growing increasingly panicked, while others search for answers that prove difficult to find. While the previous two sentences could be referring to the current Astros sign-stealing scheme, they in fact refer to the plot of the baseball-themed thriller Night Game.

Night Game isn’t a particularly notable film, but for the fact the plot relies so heavily on baseball and Roy Scheider’s turn as detective Mike Seaver. The film is peppered with other stars—past and future—in bit parts, including 9 ½ Weeks’ Karen Young, CSI: Miami’s Rex Linn and Xena: Warrior Princess’s Renee O’Connor. 

The 1989 film’s plot, such as it is, centers around a serial killer stalking the beaches of Galveston, and one Astros pitcher in particular, Sil Barretto, in the middle of a postseason race. For some reason, the killer seems to strike only after Barretto’s victories, targeting pretty young blondes dressed in virginal white. A dysfunctional collection of detectives, including Scheider, struggle to piece together the clues and solve the gruesome crimes.

Unlike the more successful baseball-themed thriller, The Fan, this is a fairly shallow slasher with very little to distinguish it from other films in the genre. There are a few grisly kills and a slightly tense foot-chase scene between Scheider’s character’s fiancé and the murderer, but there’s very little by way of genuine suspense. 

Unsurprisingly, there’s also very little depth or character development. The killer himself isn’t particularly scary, and his motivations are paper-thin, almost laughably silly. The murderer, portrayed by a disheveled Rex Linn, was driven to murder because his baseball career didn’t work out. (No, really!) Linn’s Floyd Epps is a former Astros farmhand who was released due Barretto’s call-up. On the very day Epps was let go, he was involved in a bus accident that cost him his pitching hand and led to instability. Hence the use of the hook to commit his crimes, and the fact that all the murders come after Barretto’s victories. Epps is so obsessed with his former minor league teammate’s success that he’s driven to steal headlines from him with his brutal crimes.

There might have been an actual story here, but it’s lost amid way too many scenes of a bare chested, oiled-up Scheider and dull, uncreative murder scenes. The flimsy plot offers very little of interest or note. There’s also a terminal lack of common sense among  many of those involved; Roxy, Scheider’s love interest, wanders off by herself several times while the killer is loose, and just narrowly misses being added to the list of victims. Others wander into dark alleys and funhouses with little regard for their safety while a killer is running around the beaches of Galveston.

The film also misses an opportunity to lean into Scheider’s success with the Jaws franchise; even though it cast a star from one of the sequels—Young as Roxy—and features several murders committed near bodies of water, we never once tap into the wealth of Jaws jokes just waiting to be used. At the very least, a wink and a nod to Scheider’s more critically and financially successful work in Jaws would have been amusing, unlike the vast majority of Night Game.

The most interesting aspect of Night Game is probably that fact the film used amateur ballplayers to fill in as major leaguers, thanks to a connection with an Astros team executive. The players were used to simulate on-field action and for close-up scenes. The player details are accurate; when the Astros take on the Dodgers, names of then-contemporary real players are peppered in; former Dodgers and Tigers star Kirk Gibson, for example. A local sports director for a Houston news station also had a cameo as the Astros’ play-by-play guy. Scheider’s detective is a former minor leaguer who still follows the game and listens to the Astros on his police car’s radio. 

This isn’t a very good movie in any respect, so it’s difficult to find interesting angles to talk about. The romance subplot is uninteresting and maybe a little creepy, because it really seems like Scheider is dating the daughter of a woman he went to high school with; their relationship is punctuated with sex and arguments, featuring a paternalistic Scheider and a frustrated, pouty Young. 

The plot is nonexistent, the motivations and psychology are shallow. There’s just very little to recommend it beyond the trappings of baseball. The film features some scenes filmed at the old Houston Astrodome, including some simulated games, and if you’re interested in the Galveston area, some familiar locations are featured prominently. 

The cinematography is also strong, featuring point-of-view shots of the murders from the killer’s point of view, interesting angles, and some beautifully artistic shots (especially the scene in the night club). The cinematographer, Fred Murphy, would go on to shoot other, successful films like October Sky, Auto-Focus, Stir of Echoes, and Secret Window. He’s also done work on popular TV shows like Fringe, The Good Wife, and Evil

It’s rather unfortunate this ended up being such a forgettable movie, because baseball and thrillers can be interesting and even fun! The Fan wasn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but there was a semblance of a plot, some good work from its venerable cast, and enough psychological depth that the characters’ actions actually kind of made sense. Robert De Niro gleefully chewed scenery and Wesley Snipes got to show off his acting skills. Alas, there’s none of that here. Scheider can’t carry this all on his own and despite valiant attempts, none of the other characters—outside of a beleaguered, Excedrin-popping detective played by Richard Bradford, best known for the TV show Man in a Suitcase—show much of a personality. 

Even the killer is fairly unremarkable, except for the final 10 minutes or so of the movie when he chases Young around the Balinese Room before being shot off a pier and falling to his death in disappointingly shark-free waters. The reveal of his identity, his connection to the pitcher Barretto, and his reason for killing is revealed through some lengthy dialogue. After Epps’ death, the film ends with Scheider and Young arriving at the Astrodome in wedding attire. Barretto walks off the pitcher’s mound to congratulate them on their wedding, to the confusion of the umpires, ballplayers, and crowd, before the movie ends.

This is a difficult movie to talk about because there’s just not much to recommend it, outside of the cinematography and the baseball angle. The filmmakers and cast are strong, but the material is pretty thin and they’re not given much to do. The premise of a minor leaguer cut from his team and then forced out of baseball and into something much darker could be interesting, but it’s all so shallow and surface level. The movie doesn’t do anything new and interesting or creative in the genre. It’s certainly watchable, but it’s not a movie that will linger in the memory after it’s done. Almost everyone involved has done other work that’s more interesting, and there are other baseball-themed dramas out there. If you’ve got a particular itch to watch a baseball slasher film, give Night Game a chance, but if you’re looking for deeper fare, it might be best just to pass this one by.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

You can find Alexandra Simon ranting about things at @catswithbats, and tweeting about the Tigers on @glasshalffulmer.

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