Plot: Bruce (Robert De Niro) is a simple man, not too bright, but a talented baseball player who rose to the major leagues. He was never able to meet the expectations others had for his career, but he has been a consistent, if unremarkable presence at catcher for the New York Mammoths. His friend Henry (Michael Moriarty) on the other hand has turned into a superstar on the field, a gifted pitcher that has earned the reputation of a lights out performer. Henry and Bruce travel together and have become close friends, which is how Henry learns that Bruce has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, so this will be his final season. While Bruce doesn’t want anyone to know, Henry is determined to keep his friend in the major leagues for his last season, as well as help guide him through this tragic turn of events.
Entertainment Value: This one feels a lot like the old “disease of the week” made for television movies, but Bang the Drum Slowly is a cut above its peers and benefits from a rock solid cast. There is a good deal of baseball involved in the movie, but this is more about the characters than the sports element, so don’t expect a traditional sports themed picture here. The narrative is predictable, but does what it needs to, though it often slips into contrived territory, pulling those heartstrings with ruthless intentions at times, which hurts the movie. The emotion works best when it feels natural and earned, but that doesn’t happen often in Bang the Drum Slowly, as it rushes to hit those beats, almost like a sitcom would. As if the movie wants to wrap things up in a neat package on a tight schedule, which doesn’t work that well. Even so, it does rise above the material in some instances, thanks mostly to a solid opening act and the cast, who work to make the best of the formulaic, tired narrative. This is a decent movie that has some bright spots, but I think overall, this one is a slight disappointment.
I think one reason this movie is so well regarded is the presence of Robert De Niro, but even he can only do so much here. I appreciate the performance, especially since the actor is given the kind of role we don’t often see him in, yet he rises to the challenge and performs well. I think in lesser hands, the role would buckle under the lackluster script, but De Niro is able to bolster it instead. So while the story is predictable and well worn, his performance helps it hold up better it probably would otherwise, even if this isn’t one of his best efforts. You also have to talk about the chemistry between De Niro and Michael Moriarty, which is the driving force behind Bang the Drum Slowly, since that friendship is so central to the narrative. Moriarty is quite good here and the two are able to convey an authentic bond, which helps the emotional beats and in this case, that is very much needed. Without these two strong leads, I have to think the movie would have been a much less effective experience. The cast here also includes Heather MacRae, Ann Wedgeworth, Phil Foster, and Vincent Gardenia.