Mark Reviews Movies

HARDBALL

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Brian Robbins

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane, DeWayne Warren, John Hawkes, Bryan Hearne, Julian Griffith

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some violence)

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 9/14/01


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Hardball is one of those movies where you pretty much know every turn the story will take within ten minutes. Itís pure formula, and director Brian Robbins handles it well. It does what itís supposed to do, and it occasionally goes a little farther than it needs to. This is one of those bittersweet feel-good movies that will either crumble under the weight of its screenplay or will somehow make the audience forget how contrived it is. Hardball is entertaining in the way it dives into formula, and then it actually surpasses it in a late series of events that will be called blatant tear-jerking by some and effectively heart-wrenching by others. It really all depends on your experience I suppose.

This, like most sports movies, is the story of underdogs both on the field and off. Conor OíNeill (Keanu Reeves) is a ticket-scalping, gambling man in big trouble with a few people. Heís lost a lot of money after making a bet under his dead fatherís name. Heís extremely strapped for cash and so goes to a successful friend of his to borrow some money. The friend will give Conor $500 a week if he helps coach a Little League team from the projects, which yields the obvious line "But Iím no good with kids." Conor soon finds himself coaching alone and having to handle the constant fighting and bad-mouthing within the team. Will the kids get their act together? Will Conor be able to shed his former life? Will he discover that he is good with kids? Will Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane, who is in The Glass House, also released this week), the boysí teacher, be a love interest? Do I really need to insult your intelligence by answering any of those questions?

The movie goes through the footing of the underdog movie. Thereís the big rival team with nice uniforms and a coach whoís far too hard on his players. Thereís the head of the league who doesnít seem to give them a chance. Thereís the team itself. Each of the players has his own little quirk. One is a great pitcher as long as heís listening to his headphones (when theyíre taken away, we just wait for the team to sing while he pitches). One is overweight and has asthma and diabetes. One is the cutest little trash-talker and so on and so on.

But for all of these familiar elements, the movie is never obnoxiously formulaic. The romance angle is obviously thrown in for filler and Conorís gambling problem gets complicated to the point of incoherence, but I never groaned in recognition. The movie even goes a step above its origins to give us a look at life in the projects. They are short yet harrowing sequences. We watch as the boy with asthma tries to weave around gangs to get home only to be beaten for his bag. Conor walks one of the boys home, and we see the conditions people are forced to live in. That twist I was speaking of is connected to this reality, and it leads to an emotional scene. I live in the south suburbs of Chicago, and I know when I open paper on any given day, there is a good chance of a story like the one portrayed late in the movie being in the news. Itís not an easy scene, and Iím sure it will hit close to home for many.

The kids in the movie are all from the inner city, and what they lack in formal ability they more than make up for in charm. They all have a natural quality to them, and it adds to material. Diane Lane isnít given much here, but sheís a fine love interest. Reeves is, well, Reeves. He does what he does, but he is able to carry that difficult scene, and that alone is pretty impressive.

Before its release, Hardball was the subject of a small controversy. Chicago mayor Richard Daley was upset with the kidsí use of bad language because he thought it would shed a bad light on Chicago and African-Americans. I guess he and others making the same argument won (itís rated PG-13), but after watching the project scenes in the movie, I think all the time and commitment given towards cleaning up the language could have been put to much better use.

Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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