Not to worry, 'Hardball' won't be bad PR for city
by Richard Roeper
TO: MAYOR RICHARD DALEY, City Hall
FROM: RICHARD ROEPER, Chicago Sun-Times
Dear Mayor Daley:
It was just about this time last year that you and your old buddy Paul Vallas and other folks were working yourselves into a lather over the movie "Hardball,'' based on the Daniel Coyne book about the Little League teams who played in the shadows of the Cabrini-Green housing projects. Even as the movie was being made in Chicago, you were expressing your indignation over the news that the children in the film reportedly would be using rough language, including the f-word, and your concerns that the real-life league, its organizers and the city itself--would be maligned.
"It's the 'Clockwork Orange' version of 'The Bad News Bears,' " warned Vallas, who added that the movie "reinforces negative stereotypes,'' and that Hollywood "needs to be a little more responsible.''
And you, Mister Mayor, said: "[The filmmakers] don't want this movie to portray all the good things they've done. [The real] kids don't use four-letter words. The kids are not how they're portrayed, as well as the coaches.''
Meanwhile, one of the real-life coaches filed a suit to block the movie's release--a suit that was denied just last week.
You're a real movie buff, your honor, so your criticism surprised me. For one thing, a fictional work of drama inspired by a real-life inner-city Little League team--even one with kids swearing--hardly sounded like the most damaging big-screen treatment Chicago has ever endured. What about "The Untouchables,'' with that lovely scene of Robert De Niro's Al Capone clubbing an associate to death with a baseball bat? Or "Candyman,'' with a bogeyman ghost-killer on a murder rampage in Cabrini-Green? Or even "Chain Reaction,'' in which Keanu blew up eight square city blocks on the South Side?
Maybe there was no controversy over those movies because they were dramatic stories, Mayor Daley--as is "Hardball.'' Yes, like "The Untouchables,'' it uses some actual events and characters as the launching point for its stylized story, but that's been the case with thousands of films, from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High'' to "Gladiator.'' These ain't documentaries.
I talked to Keanu last Saturday in Toronto about the controversy, and he told me he was "frustrated'' by your comments--and that the swearing was never gratuitous. In fact his character tells the kids if they can't say something nice about each other on the field, they shouldn't say a word. (As far as the lawsuit is concerned, Reeves said he signed onto the project based on the fictional character in the screenplay, not the book or the people involved in the league.)
Starting this Friday, your honor, "Hardball'' will actually be shown in theaters across the country--and it's my belief that the reputations of the league, its players and the city have not been damaged in the least.
Not that you're going to appreciate the way these kids talk. Even though all mentions of the f-word have been dropped at the studio's behest so that "Hardball'' would get a PG-13 instead of an R rating, the kids still pepper their dialogue with some rough talk.
"I can pound that s--- to the gate,'' brags one player as he steps into the batter's box.
"S--- you hit me, huh bitch?'' says another kid when he's plunked by a pitch.
Other sample dialogue from the mouths of the babes:
"I'm tired of your s---, bitch!''
"We wanna play, bitch, hell yeah."
"Damn, that s--- is tight."
There's also a shootout between rival gangs, a scene of a kid getting robbed and beaten, some hard talk from the boys about their absentee fathers--and the fact that the kids use a song called "Big Poppa" by the late Notorious B.I.G. as their unofficial theme. (From the chorus: "If you got a gun up in your waist please don't shoot up the place, cause I see some ladies tonight who should be havin' my baby . . .")
As for the coach played by Reeves, he's a hard-drinking loser with a gambling problem who takes over the team only because he's being paid $500 a week--which means he's nothing like the real-life men who donated their time and their hearts to the Near West Little League.
Of course, this being a movie, Keanu undergoes some dramatic changes as the story progresses. And by the time the credits roll, "Hardball" has done justice to the players, the league and the city. I can't imagine that anyone who sees this movie will walk out with a negative impression of the real-life people and places who inspired the story.
Besides, your honor, let's be honest. The tough language, the rap soundtrack and the gang violence in this film aren't products of Hollywood's imagination, are they? They're mirrors of society.
I told Keanu that you were a real movie buff, and a fair man. So here's the deal: I'll spring for the tickets and even the popcorn and the sodas if you'd like to see "Hardball.''
And remember, for a quarter more you can get a large size drink. It's a real bargain.
Your fellow movie-lover,
September 10, 2001