This is a movie about a a gorilla playing baseball, which means that it's a movie about a gorilla playing baseball. Certain people may not like this. I do not want to meet these people. If "this is a movie about a gorilla that plays baseball" does not interest you, I can't imagine what will. I dunno, go watch some World War II documentaries instead. Give me the ape.
Our story begins, as all great stories do, at the circus. Ling Ling is the gorilla protector of Wei Wei, the child-with-moxie at the heart of our tale. She juggles, trains Ling Ling to hit baseballs, and is very precocious. Ling Ling has saved her during an earthquake, and after a sketchy-but-bumbling Chinese crime syndicate threatens to takeover the circus, Wei Wei agrees to sign Ling Ling over to a KBL team (the Doosan Bears) via a bounty hunter of an agent. The trailer is not in English, but gets the point across:
Yes, that's "Walk of Life." Dire Straits will feature heavily in this movie, to my utmost glee.
Ling Ling is 45 years old and 300 kilograms. He does not have much fielding prowess, and seems to be used only as a pinch-hitter because he can hit the ball a literal mile. He also crowds the plate. You would think this is illegal in the Korean League, but there are no less than four different "there's nowhere in the rules where it says a gorilla can't play baseball!" moments.
There is, of course, some tension. The agent character is planning to only showcase Ling Ling -- now known throughout Korea as Mr. Go -- in Korea to sell him to a Japanese or American team. Two Japanese owners are in town, but they want a physical done before they sign a contract on a 45-year-old gorilla (perhaps understandably). The gangsters have found their own gorilla and are threatening to start a gorilla bidding war.
Basically, everyone is in it for the money, and poor, sweet, Wei Wei just wants to save the family circus. The only one who understands her and seems at all skeptical of everyone else's purposes is the Doosan GM Kim Kang-woo, who is also the only one in a not-buffonishly-cut suit. He's a former player, you see, and is looking out for the players' best interests. Even if the player is a gorilla. This "GM caring deeply about players" is perhaps the greatest stretch of believability in the movie.
This is a Korean movie, and there's no little amount of inter-Asian chauvinism in the film. The Chinese gangsters would probably be toned down even in a Rush Hour film. The Japanese team owners are creepazoid millionaires. Then again, maybe I'm bringing my own chauvinism into this since early on in the movie when the KBL commissioner picks up a gavel to bring order to a disorganized meeting, I was greedily hoping for an Old Boy scene. Still, the biggest strike against the agent is "You sold our best players to the MLB!" and gets thrown at him a lot as a proof of his mendacity.
But this isn't a movie about cultural differences. It's a children's baseball movie. The announcers do a spot-on job acting like, well, baseball announcers. They refuse to admit there's anything they don't know and have a strategy for every situation. When pitchers start giving Mr. Go the Barry Bonds and walking him even with the bases loaded, the announcer intones "It's a man's game. The animal has to adapt." It's brilliant. Also, Mr. Go lies down when IBB'ed, a bit of screw-you-itude I hope comes to the MLB.
There is also a gorilla helicopter chase, a gorilla drinking insane quantities of soju, and a gorilla lit in neon like some Edward Hopper painting. Not to mention the montages of a gorilla hitting whopping dingers. You know the fortune cookie game of ending your fortune cookie fortune with "...in bed"? That's moderately amusing, sure. But what's better? Playing the fortune cookie game ending them in "...with a CGI gorilla."
So it's a great movie and a whole lot of fun. Which makes the morality play of the denouement even more powerful. The concert of interests between the players, agents, and owners when money is involved is frustrating and illuminating for those of us who never get to peer behind those curtains.
It's even more tricky when age and injury is involved. I see an aging high-OBP slugger with a nagging knee injury, I see Joey Votto 10 years from now. The awfulness of injury, injury concerns, and the complete inhuman immaturity of those who are not the one with an injured joint is probably in our future (by which I mean the closest comp I can think of for the 2010 MVP is a CGI ape). There is a gravitas here, and Mr. Go is acted (automated?) wonderfully. It's tough to watch the end of this movie and not think of your favorite aging star growing up, whoever that may be.
Come for the animation ape, stay for the meditation on growing old in baseball. That's what I always say. This is the best baseball film since Major League, and it's not even close.