By EW Staff
Updated September 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

In For Love of the Game, Kevin Costner returns to his favorite metaphor of sport as heroism: A player with balls striving for personal perfection is, Costner suggests, cinema’s purest image of the kind of unwavering loyalty, irony-eschewing directness, physical mastery, individual initiative, and commitment to teamwork that best represents American manly (subtext: Republican?) virtues in a society where cataclysmic (subtext: Democratic?) change is never for the good. ”You’re like the old guys,” a teammate tells Billy with admiration, reminding us — as this pennant-waving, old-fashioned movie does time and again — that glory is still available to a man (and even a movie star) in midlife.

And if this bombastic, crowd-pleasing baseball drama rouses us — how could it not, it so lovingly fetishizes every moment in one heck of a game in one heck of a season of America’s national pastime — well then, so much the better for Costner the movie star in midlife, a complicated player who feels he’s misunderstood by the Hollywood front office.

After fulminating about the awfulness of change in stuff as torturous as ”Waterworld” (in which anarchic violence caused a man to develop vulva-like gills) and ”The Postman” (in which anarchic violence led to really late delivery of catalogs), it’s a relief to have Costner expressing his incontrovertible personal values back in the 20th century. I just wish that the bases weren’t so heavily loaded in Billy Chapel’s favor — that we might be allowed to empathize with his human weaknesses a little more before rewarding him for his strengths. I just wish Costner trusted fans of the game to catch the spirit on our own.

Depressingly, for a plot propelled by a love story, ”For Love of the Game” sure strikes out when it comes to Billy and Jane’s (Kelly Preston) romance. Theirs is a longtime relationship the pitcher reviews in his head while on the mound (when he’s not muttering about batters), letting us know how much he loves her, with a faithfulness and ardor that’s impressive — or would be if the other half of the couple had any substance to call her own.

”For Love of the Game” has been directed by Sam Raimi, a filmmaker (and baseball lover) who, from ”The Evil Dead” through last year’s low-key yet exciting thriller ”A Simple Plan,” usually makes great, controlled use of kinetic gusto. I don’t know what clubhouse confabs with star and studio brought Raimi to this temporary impasse. But in this particular game, Costner’s determination to avoid change keeps this baseball movie at a low line drive when it might have knocked one into the bleachers.