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HARDBALL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane, John Hawkes, D.B. Sweeney, Mike McGlone, Graham Beckel
Director:  Brian Robbins
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  February 19, 2002

“The most important thing in life is showing up.”

Film **1/2

Sometimes, timing is everything…who knows if I would have liked Hardball better if I hadn’t so recently screened The Bad News Bears for the first time in many years and realized that it was the most original and still the best of all the kids’ sports movies?

In Hardball, we have an unlikely, undisciplined adult in trouble becoming reluctant coach to a group of outcast young kids with questionable talent, and I couldn’t help but think that not only had I seen this formula many times before, but I had seen it very recently.  Here, it was supposed to be based on a true story, but one has to assume creative liberties were taken…if not, life imitated art too closely for my comfort.

Keanu Reeves plays Conor O’Neill, a man with a double barreled gambling problem…he’s hooked, and he’s not very lucky.  Owing a lot of money to a number of bad-tempered bookies, he gets roped into an offer he can’t refuse…a $500 a week paycheck to coach an inner city league baseball team.

Not only is he uninterested in the kids, but the job puts him square in the projects, where gangs and guns are a reality of life.  The kids themselves are, of course, everything we’ve seen before…there’s the fat kid, the smart kid, the kid that’s always ready to fight, the kid with the smart mouth, and so on.  Their first on-field excursion is all slapstick and miscues.  It doesn’t last very long…which is interesting, because the kids seem to get pretty good pretty fast, and I don’t remember Conor ever once actually teaching them anything about baseball!

But where the movie falls short as another kids’ sports flick, it picks up points with a few flashes of courage in their back story.  Where they live is horrifically dangerous…they endure the kind of reality no little kid should have to face, but of course, far too many DO face in our country.  The fear to even walk home after dark leaves one asthmatic little boy in bad shape.  When Conor walks one of his teammates home and wonders why everyone in the projects sits on the floor, the kid tells him without batting an eye that you have to stay lower than the bullets.  All of this accumulates in a fast flash so heartbreakingly tragic that the movie suddenly grows a sense of merit that it didn’t have before.

It’s enough to make you wonder why the picture didn’t spend more time with these kids in their daily lives and less with the big game clichés that play not once, but twice.  They are more interesting than the grownups, but we’re subjected to the usual glut of attention paid to the coach, and how he becomes a better man by being around the kids.  Oh, and of course, the usual love story, this time with the boys’ pretty young teacher (Lane).

The formula is apparently ironclad and hard to break…even when a picture like this has something more to say, it chooses to say it too quickly because the pattern doesn’t allow for too many deviances.  Hardball is not a bad film, but it definitely had what it took to be so much more, and its small flashes of courage aren’t enough to dismiss the fact that for the most part, it chose the easy way out.

Video ***1/2

This is a quality anamorphic offering from Paramount, boasting good, natural coloring throughout and strong image integrity, even in darker scenes.  Most of the definition is sharp, with only one or two shots showing a tad softness, mostly in barroom lighting.  Tones are natural looking and well contained, with no bleeding, distortions, or undue grain to mar the presentation.  A very good effort overall.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack makes ambient uses of the front and rear stages for effect, such as crowd noises or simple outdoor play, where background noises come lightly from different directions.  The musical score with rap songs deliver some of the dynamic range and most of the punch to the subwoofer.  Considering the subject matter, it’s an audio track that is more than serviceable.

Features ***

The disc includes a commentary track from director Brian Robbins and writer John Gatins.  It starts out a little sparsely and unpromising—they even refer to Conor as “the Keanu Reeves character”—but it gets better as it goes along, with some interesting stories about both the stars and the kids in the movie.  There is also a music video for “Hardball” by Lil Bow Wow, Lil’ Wayne, Lil’ Zane and Sammie, three deleted scenes, a short promotional featurette, plus the original trailer.

Summary:

Hardball is mostly made up of things you’ve seen before, though it offers a bit of a grim reality check on the side that helps elevate all of the material.  It could have been better, to be sure, but as it is, it’s a decent entry rolling off of a long, tried and true assembly line.