“Hardball” is a softball, and this umpire calls it out at first base.
Keanu Reeves plays a compulsive gambler named Conor O’Neill who owes a lot of money to various thugs. A childhood friend offers to pay him $500 a week if he will take over the friend’s responsibility to coach a baseball team in Chicago’s Cabrini Green, one of the nation’s most dangerous housing projects. You know where it goes from there because you’ve seen it in “The Bad News Bears” and “The Mighty Ducks” and dozens of clones. That is not always a bad thing – there’s always room for another story of underdogs and redemption. But this one never delivers on any of the opportunities that formula creates. There’s a nine-member team and we barely get to know any of them except for two inevitable cliches — the fat kid and the cute little kid who talks a lot. Reeves can be terrific in a part that suits his range, but the blankness that works well for him in dumb parts (“Bill and Ted”) and silent parts (“Speed,” “The Matrix”) does not give him enough to work with when he is supposed to be struggling with his compulsion to gamble or angry with himself for getting into trouble. Reeves gets no help from the script, which makes him behave in an arbitrary and inconsistent manner and does not have a single memorable line of dialogue. We don’t want to be told that he and the kids come to care for each other in a movie like this – we want to be shown. And there is not one moment of practice, teaching skills (baseball or otherwise), or conversation to make us believe it.
The movie makes the most of the audience’s inherent commitment to the storyline. We want those kids to make it, and we want Conor to make it, too. The other reason to watch is yet another quietly arresting performance by Diane Lane, who brings a delicacy and complexity to every moment she is on screen.
The script is strictly by-the-numbers, but there is a timely plot twist concerning a player with a forged birth certificate. One of the movie’s most wrenching scenes shows him after he is kicked off the team, wearing gang colors and warning his former teammates with a meaningful glance to get away quickly.
Parents should know that the movie includes very strong language, including many four-letter words used by children. The boys are surrounded by drug use and gang violence. They can identify the weapon by the sound of the shooting and take it for granted that they must sit on the floor to be out of the way of gunfire that might come in the window. One child is badly beaten and another is killed.
I have to say something here about the MPAA’s rating system. This film was originally intended to be released as an R, due to the language used by the children. The producers argued that it was an authentic portrayal of the way that people in that environment speak. Protests during the filming, and, more significantly, marketing concerns about whether the audience really wanted an R-rated movie about a little league team, led them to cut some of the worst language to obtain a PG-13 rating. This shows again the absurdity of the MPAA’s standards because the movie still has some material, including the gang shooting of a child, that is far more likely to be upsetting to younger audiences than a few four-letter words.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the children helped Conor realize that he needed to make some changes. Why was it important that Conor made a rule that the players could not insult each other? What did Conor learn from G-Baby? What do you think will happen to the members of the team when they get too old to play in the league?