Release Date(s)1986 (October 17, 2023)
Studio(s)Kings Road Entertainment/Universal (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B-
Roger Spottiswoode’s The Best of Times is an unfairly neglected sports movie that failed to find an audience back in 1986, and it hasn’t really picked up much of a following over the decades since then. That may seem surprising considering the fact that it stars both Robin Williams and Kurt Russell, but neither one of them were guaranteed box office draws yet at that point in the mid-Eighties, and a lackluster marketing campaign from Universal certainly didn’t help. Yet The Best of Times still should have been far more commercial than it was, because in some ways it epitomizes the manner in which the sports genre in general and football movies in particular had shifted from the Seventies into the Eighties and beyond.
The newfound artistic freedoms that were gained after the collapse of the Production Code Administration during the Sixties resulted in sports films that had a harsh edge to them unlike anything that’s been seen since that time—The Bad News Bears and Slapshot would be prime examples. Even feel-good stories like Rocky were willing to let their characters lose at the end. In the case of football movies, the likes of The Longest Yard, Semi-Tough, and North Dallas Forty were anything but feel-good. Inevitably, the rougher edges of these films were sanded off in favor of the safer kinds of entertainment that prevailed during the Eighties and Nineties. While writer Ron Shelton’s script for The Best of Times offers a few interesting angles along the way, it’s still the satisfying kind of redemption story that would come to dominate the genre during that era.
Jack Dundee (Williams) is a man who’s defined by his past. Back in 1972, he failed to catch a pass from his friend Reno Hightower (Russell) during a high school football game, and that dropped ball changed his life as well the lives of everyone else in Taft, California. They’ve all lived in the shadow of their rival Bakersfield ever since then—as Jack notes, his failure forced the entire town to slip into oblivion forever. More than a decade later, Jack works as a banker for his domineering father-in-law The Colonel (Donald Moffat), while Reno runs a struggling custom van shop. Reno’s marriage to his wife Gigi (Pamela Reed) is falling apart due to his personal inertia, while Jack’s marriage to Elly (Holly Palance) has hit some rocky roads of its own. Jack can only think of one solution to solve all these problems: getting the old team together to challenge Bakersfield to a rematch. At first, everyone thinks he’s crazy, but slowly this impossible dream starts to become reality.
The results of all Jack’s machinations are certainly predictable, but that’s not really a bad thing in this case. Shelton’s story spends far too much time setting up the centrality of that dropped pass in the lives of Jack and the rest of the people of Taft not to pay it off at the end. Had he done otherwise, that elusive football would have become a Chekhov’s gun that never even had its chance to fire during the third act. The ghosts of Taft’s past needed to be exhumed before they could be put to rest once and for all. Yet things still aren’t quite that simple, since Shelton is provided a bit more depth than might be obvious at first. The significance of Jack’s failures may have become somewhat exaggerated over the years, but so have the legends of Reno’s athletic prowess. In fact, Reno is only able to regain his former glory after Jack tricks him into regressing into the kind of ornery bastard that he used to be back in the high school days. Thanks to interesting details like that, The Best of Times manages to transcend being the simple kind of nerdy Robin Williams/jock Kurt Russell team-up that it might have been otherwise.
Williams and Russell are still playing well within their comfort zones in The Best of Times, but Spottiswoode kept things interesting by surrounding them with a pretty remarkable supporting cast. You can’t go wrong with Pamela Reed, Holly Palance, and Donald Moffat, but Spottiswoode also threw in veteran character actors like M. Emmett Walsh, R.G. Armstrong, Dub Taylor, and Kathleen Freeman. Kirk Cameron, Robyn Lively, and an uncredited Tracey Gold also make early appearances here. The Best of Times may be an Eighties artifact in more ways than one, but that decade offered plenty of charms of its own. And thanks to Spottiswoode, Shelton, and their capable cast, so does The Best of Times.
Cinematographer Charles F. Wheeler shot The Best of Times on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Kino Lorber’s website describes this version as being a “2022 HD master by Lionsgate,” but it doesn’t look like it was sourced from a fresh scan. Lionsgate probably just used an older 2K scan from an interpositive and tweaked it a bit. For the most part, that digital tinkering wasn’t too heavy-handed, but there are some occasional artifacts visible. There are also a handful of shots throughout the film that look like they might have been derived from dupe elements farther down the line than the IP stage. They’re softer, with harsher contrast, and they don’t blend very well with the surrounding material. The overall contrast range is solid, but there isn’t much detail visible in the darkest portions of the frame—the blacks here are simply black, with no shadow detail. Otherwise, the image is relatively clean, with just some light speckling and an occasional damage mark still on display. The color balance looks natural. While a fresh scan from the original camera negative would have been nice, this is what was available, and it’s still nice for The Best of Times to finally make its way to Blu-ray.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The Best of Times was a modestly-budgeted film for 1986, but it’s still a bit surprising that a mainstream Kurt Russell/Robin Williams title like this never got a Dolby Stereo mix. Still, while it was distributed by a major studio, it looks like it was a pickup from King’s Road Entertainment, and they sometimes settled for mono during that era. As mono mixes go, this one is as lackluster as the original marketing campaign was. It sounds compressed, without much in the way of dynamics or deep bass. The original magnetic sound elements probably weren’t available, so this may have been derived from the optical mono tracks on the film elements that were used. At least the dialogue is clear, but the score by Arthur B. Rubinstein sounds a little weak.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of The Best of Times includes a slipcover that matches the artwork on the insert. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Roger Spottiswoode and Ron Shelton
- Trailer #1 (SD – 1:47)
- Trailer #2 (SD – 2:15)
- Cadillac Man Trailer (HD – 1:45)
- Body Slam Trailer (HD – 2:19)
- D.C. Cab Trailer (SD – 2:33)
- The Longest Yard Trailer (HD – 4:04)
- Kindergarten Cop Trailer (HD – 2:03)
- The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper Trailer (HD – 2:55)
The commentary with Spottiswoode and Shelton was newly-recorded for this edition. It’s moderated by author and filmmaker C. Courtney Joyner. They start by looking back at the real history that inspired the script, as well as the times that Spottiswoode and Shelton had spent working together previously on Under Fire and The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper. After that, they focus on The Best of Times. Joyner does bring up the issue of the poor marketing that was done for the film, and they’re definitely still bitter about it. Spottiswoode makes the interesting point that he thinks that Williams learned from Russell’s acting skills. Williams felt the need to be the clown at first, but after working with Russell for a while, he started to calm down and didn’t over-perform anymore. As a group, they do spend a bit too much time just watching the film and reacting, but they still do tell some good stories about the production.
The Best of Times has been a hold out on Blu-ray for far too long, so it’s a welcome addition to Kino Lorber’s growing catalogue. The master that Lionsgate provided may not have been the freshest, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. This isn’t the kind of film that’s likely to get a new 4K scan anytime soon, so beggars can’t be choosers. It’s good enough for what it is, and the new commentary adds value. The Best of Times isn’t exactly a lost masterpiece, but it is a forgotten piece of Eighties pop culture that deserves rediscovery.
- Stephen Bjork