Screenplay : John Gatins (based on the book Hardball A Season in the Projects by Daniel Coyle)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Keanu Reeves (Conor O'Neill), Diane Lane (Elizabeth Wilkes), John Hawkes (Ticky), D.B. Sweeney (Matt Hyland), Bryan Hearne (Andre), Julian Griffith (Jefferson Tibbs), Michael B. Jordan (Jamal), Alan Ellis Jr. (Miles), Kristopher Lofton (Clarence), Michael Perkins (Kofi), Brian Reed (Ray-Ray), DeWayne Warren (G-Baby)
Harball is a sluggish, "uplifting" Hollywoodized account of a troubled man who finds unlikely redemption by coaching an inner-city baseball team. Adapted by John Gatins (Summer Catch) from Daniel Coyle's 1993 memoir and directed by Brian Robbins (Varsity Blues) as Boyz N the Hood meets The Bad News Bears, Hardball is one of those irritatingly "well-intentioned" movies that constantly falls flat because it offers no depth. The good intentions are there, even if the story is once again skewed in typical Hollywood fashion to privilege the saving white man's troubles over the black kids, even though their life-and-death situation is not of their own making, while his is.
Keanu Reeves stars as Conor O'Neill, a Chicago lay-about with no real prospects in life and an enormous, ever-growing gambling debt. Desperate for dough to pay off some tough bookies who he's shorted one time too many, Conor takes a deal offered by a stock-broker friend in which he gets $500 a week under the table to coach a baseball team in the Chicago Housing Authority League. Desperate, Conor takes the deal even though he knows nothing about baseball and could care less about "giving back to the community."
Of course, it's no big surprise that the team turns out to be composed of a rag-tag group of tough-talking, but ultimately warm-hearted kids who just need a strong male role model to lead them through a childhood plagued by gun-wielding gangstas and drug pushers on every corner. Thankfully, the young actors who fill the parts are lively and talented, even if they're playing minimal, often cliched roles. There's Jefferson Tibbs (Julian Griffith), the token chubby kid with asthma who is always being harassed because of his weight and is the most vulnerable to the neighborhood predators because he exudes weakness. Then there's Miles (Alan Ellis Jr.), the kid who's always wearing headphones and turns out to be a natural pitcher. And, drawing the most sympathy of all is G-Baby (DeWayne Warren), a mere tyke who talks toughest of all but simply wants to belong so badly that he hangs around the team even though he's too young to play.
The story develops along an awkwardly obvious arc, even shoe-horning in a romantic interest for Conor in the form of Diane Lane as Elizabeth Wilkes, a tough-love teacher who only wants the best for the kids, even if they don't recognize it. Conor remains fairly one-dimensional as a character, which is increased by Keanu Reeves' bland performance, but the movie does take a few risks in making Conor quite repulsive at times. Yet, you can always sense that redemption is just around the corner, even in the cement harshness of the ghetto.
The movie holds baseball—America's national pastime—aloft as a saving grace, but it doesn't seem to know anything about the sport itself. In fact, we never see Conor actually coaching except one scene where he bats balls into the outfield for catching practice. There is never any discussion of strategy, or skill, or even basic components of the game. The most detailed the movie gets is listing the batting order. Hardball is an odd sports movie, one that takes the game completely for granted and uses it only as a strained metaphor to argue that kids need something to keep them focused in life. It's not surprising that the one kid who has to leave the team because his mother forged his birth certificate winds up a black-hooded gangsta in no time—he literally needs the game.
Hardball has isolated scenes that work, but it constantly strives too hard, especially in the third act when violent death visits the team in a labored sentimental turn that is perfectly defensible considering the world in which the story takes place, but comes across as too easy. A teary funeral scene gives Conor the chance to stand up and deliver a long speech summing up what the movie is about, most notably his own personal redemption, when what we want to see is the individual kids—the characters the movie should be focusing on—and how they're making it through their hard world. Hardball may be a movie that has its heart in the right place, but its priorities are all out of whack.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick