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For Love of the Game

The guys back home have a saying: You can't go wrong when it's Kevin Costner and sports.

It's a bold claim to make, but considering the success of baseball films ''Field of Dreams'' and ''Bull Durham,'' as well as the golf-oriented ''Tin Cup,'' it's a fair assessment.

Costner's newest, ''For Love of the Game,'' adds a notch to the belt - but just barely. The drama is effective as a sports movie, but for all its endeavors, the love story doesn't hold up as the emotional core of the film.

Luckily, there's still the baseball, and director Sam Raimi does a nice job of bringing suspense and humor to Yankee Stadium, where Billy Chapel (Costner) stands on the pitcher's mound -- ''the loneliest spot in the world'' - and assesses his life.

A phenom signed to the Detroit Tigers at age 18, Billy's now a fading star with a sore arm. His team is in last place, playing the last game of the season. Upon learning news that his team's future owners want to trade him, the current owner suggests he retire. At the same time, his longtime girlfriend, Jane (Kelly Preston), tearfully announces she's boarding a plane that afternoon for London to take an editing position. ''You don't need me,'' she tells him. ''You can win or lose the game without me.''

With burdens pressing on his nagging arm, Billy shrugs off the pain and hurls away. As the innings pass, he slowly realizes he may be on his way to pitching the perfect game.

While his body goes through the motions, his thoughts, for once, aren't on the game, but the imminent decisions he must make afterward. The movie shifts into flashbacks that trace his relationship with the game and his girl. Billy and Jane first meet cute on the side of the highway (naturally, she doesn't know who he is) and he invites her to see him play.

Alarms first sound for Jane when she sits in the wives' box and is labeled as ''this week's blonde''. Seeking to protect herself, she tells Billy over and over, in a funny scene where he's constantly interrupted by autograph-seekers, that the relationship can't work.

Preston - strong as Tom Cruise's fiancée in ''Jerry Maguire'' - is so cookie-cutter cute that her vulnerable expressions are more akin to a wounded puppy. Costner, with his squinty grin and aw-shucks demeanor, fits snugly into a familiar role, becoming a boyfriend and a surrogate dad to Jane's teenage daughter, Heather (Jena Malone).

Unlike his characters in such films as ''Message in a Bottle,'' this one's not always Mr. Sensitive. In a moment of crisis, his first thoughts are of his trainer, not his love. While the romance unfolds realistically, it doesn't ever really tug the heartstrings it intends to.

The true emotional grit is on the field. Raimi's use of sound is especially impressive. Every little noise -- from the thwack of the bat and jeers from New Yawkers to Billy's under-the-breath commentary on each batter -- is heightened for effect. When Billy, just before a pitch, sets his mind to ''clear,'' all sound disappears.

The team's camaraderie, particularly involving catcher Gus (John C. Reilly), provides some of the best moments, putting a heartfelt stake in the climax. And, like any big game, the tension and excitement is palpable, marred only by the sports commentators' excessive narration. We know Billy's ''pitching against time.'' We don't have to be told.

Ultimately, Costner easily, successfully plays the baseball guy everyone roots for, without gloss or sizzle. Here, he's older, more tired and deserving of a break. ''For Love of the Game's'' most touching scene comes immediately after the game, with Billy finally alone to gather his thoughts. Filmed in a long shot, with Costner's face hidden from the camera, the moment works because it's awash in simplicity. There's no violin, no soundtrack tune, and thankfully, no play-by-play commentary.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief strong language and some sexuality.

'For Love of the Game'

Kevin Costner: Billy Chapel

Kelly Preston: Jane Aubrey

John C. Reilly: Gus Sinski

Jena Malone: Heather

Brian Cox: Gary Wheeler

J.K. Simmons: Frank Perry

A Beacon Pictures/Tig Productions/Mirage Enterprises production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Sam Raimi. Producers Armyan Bernstein, Amy Robinson. Executive producers Ron Bozman, Marc Abraham. Screenplay Dana Stevens, based on the novel by Michael Shaara. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editors Eric L. Beason, Arthur Coburn. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Music Basil Poledouris. Production design Neil Spisak. Art directors Jim Feng, Steve Arnold. Set decorators Carolyn Cartwright, Karen O'Hara. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.