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'Hardball' has heart: Story of hard-luck team is familiar but still effective

Friday, September 14, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

You can hardly be blamed for thinking of "Hardball" as an inner-city version of "The Bad News Bears." Even the Paramount marketing department wanted to pitch it that way.


Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some violence.

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane.

Director: Brian Robbins.

Critic's call:


It reminded me of another movie as well, "The Mighty Ducks," in which a lawyer arrested for drunk driving is forced to work it off by coaching a kids' hockey team.

In "Hardball," Keanu Reeves plays Conor O'Neill, a lowlife in serious hock to a couple of bookies who would think nothing of taking batting practice on his noggin. He goes to an old pal, investment banker Jimmy Fleming (Mike McGlone), for a loan.

But Jimmy, who has bailed him out before, tells Conor he has to earn the money by coaching the bank's youth baseball team at a housing project in one of the bleakest neighborhoods in Chicago.

Yeah, I know, we've seen it all before. The team can't play, the unlikely coach doesn't want to be there. Somehow they bond, help each other find redemption and go on to win the big one.

But "Hardball" rises above the more common movies of the genre by incorporating a tinge of desperation if not near-hopelessness and a cast of street-talking, no-nonsense kids whose ability to keep it real lends the movie some sorely needed credibility.

These kids don't play ball real well at the start, but we discover it's not because they lack talent or guidance or even motivation so much as any kind of expectation that things can get better for them. They live in a place so dangerous that practice must end before sundown so the kids can get home safely. When they hear gunshots, they can identify the type of firearm from the sound of its discharge. This new coach seems to have no clue, and clearly doesn't want to be there.

But Conor has no choice, and when he learns he might not have enough players to field a team because two of them are struggling in school, he visits their teacher, Ms. Wilkes (Diane Lane), who ropes him into helping the boys with their schoolwork. He agrees because he has to, but also because she's a looker.

They start to become a team when he gets them to stop needling each other every time someone goofs up on the field. To replace the putdowns, he starts giving the kids encouragement. But the team's prospects really soar when he finds a star pitcher in the group -- Miles (A. Delon Ellis Jr.), who can throw smoke so long as he can listen to the rapper Notorious B.I.G. on his headphones.

Still, they run into obstacles: an opposing coach (D.B. Sweeney) who tweaks the rule book to his advantage; an unsympathetic league president; a player who has to be banished from the team; a devastating off-the-field incident; Conor still wanting to ditch the team even after it becomes successful.

The two story lines -- Conor's gambling problems, the baseball team -- don't mesh particularly well. He seems like two different people in them. It's an odd role for Reeves, whose characters usually appear to be taking a walk in the clouds, to quote the title of one of his films. He has seldom if ever played a character so gritty, so earthbound.

Yet maybe it works because he doesn't quite fit, just as his players exist in a world that mainstream society would just as soon forget.

They're the ones who really keep the movie grounded, from overweight asthmatic Jefferson (Julian Griffith) to scrappy Andre (Bryan Hearne), his pal Jamal (Michael B. Jordan) to the youngest team member, G-Baby (DeWayne Warren). All 10 of the youngsters have some acting experience, and most of them live in Chicago.

Director Brian Robbins specializes in movies and TV shows with a sports theme, a hip-hop beat or both. "Hardball," based on Daniel Coyle's book about his experience coaching youth baseball in the projects, combines them and benefits from the director's passion for these elements.

"Hardball" ends up where all movies of this sort do, but gets there on a more hardscrabble path -- more subdued, less comical with some rough language, tough breaks and real heart.

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