A feeling of dread always comes over me when I read a passage like this one from the news release for “Bottom of the Ninth,” which trumpets its Italian-American street cred.
“The film is about a man who returns to the Bronx after serving 17 years in prison for a violent mistake he made as a kid, ultimately robbing him of a professional baseball career and the love of his life.”
“Here we go again,” I thought. “Another film that leans too heavily on tired Mafia tropes instead of standing on its own two feet.”
The foreboding persisted throughout my first viewing of the film, as our hero, Sonny Stano, is released from prison, struggles to find his footing in a dead-end job, reconnects with his lost love, stumbles back into baseball and finally achieves the redemption he so desperately seeks. I kept waiting for a mobster to emerge from the shadows to exact his revenge or lure Stano into a life of crime.
Imagine my delight when the closing credits rolled without a single Mafia boogeyman to be found. I actually had to watch the film a second time to enjoy it on its own merits.
The author of this mob-free miracle is Robert Bruzio, a veteran writer, producer and director who began working on the screenplay in 2003 while running a production company, helping manage his family’s construction business, raising his family and delivering auto parts to vendors every Saturday.
A labor of love for Bruzio, the film was fueled by his deep affection for baseball and inspired by the travails of a relative who strived to acclimate to civilian life after a long stint in prison. Though his relative’s story had nothing to do with the sport, “his deep struggle while going through a dark period of feeling lost and alone in a world where almost everyone he knew moved on, along with his remorseful reflections of how the mistake he made altered his life and the lives of others, affected me profoundly,” Bruzio explains.
Bruzio’s zeal for the project won over producers William Chartoff (“Rocky Balboa,” “Creed” and “Creed 2”) and Lynn Hardee (“Ender’s Game”) and director Raymond De Felitta (“City Island” and “Madoff”), who rallied to the cause. But he caught his big break when his script crossed the desk of Joe Manganiello of “True Blood” fame. Manganiello embraced the project, signing on as co-producer with his brother Nick, and enlisting his real-life wife, sitcom superstar Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family,” as his on-screen love interest.
There’s an easy chemistry between Manganiello and Vergara that no amount of acting can generate, and the same chemistry exists between the movie and its setting: the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx, where Bruzio grew up. “It’s truly quite special, colorful and one that I am very fond of because of my roots there,” he says.
This is Bruzio’s first major screenplay, and its Italian-American storyline is no accident. “It’s a world and culture I know intimately and am able to tell authentically,” he notes.
Going mob-free also was a conscious choice. “I felt there was no need at all to include that element in order to tell this story nor have anything to do with the character’s struggle,” he explains.
“Bottom of the Ninth” may never be mentioned in the same breath as legendary baseball films like “Bull Durham” and “The Natural,” but it’s an admirable fledgling effort that covers all the bases, both literally and figuratively. It’s a feel-good film with miles of heart that tells an inspirational tale of love and redemption, both on and off the field. And Bruzio’s willingness to write without the industry’s seemingly mandatory Mafia safety net makes his film supremely worthy of our support.
It was great to see veteran character actors Michael Rispoli and Vincent Pastore step away from the mobbed-up roles that have been their bread and butter. But actors have to make a living and the only way we can unyoke them from the stereotype is to flood the market with films that present a fuller view and then turn out in force to support them. Let’s get that ball rolling with “Bottom of the Ninth.”
“Bottom of the Ninth” is available to rent on AmazonVideo and Vudu.