'Ball not foul
It may not hit any home runs, but Hardball keeps its bases loaded providing enough fun and excitement to make it a diverting experience. At the core of Hardball is an increasingly familiar Hollywood sports movie cliche. A team of losers or misfits is inspired to work together as never before to emerge victorious against seemingly overwhelming odds.
Think The Mighty Ducks, Bad News Bears or Major League.
Keanu Reeves who stars this time as the coach of a little league baseball team must have had a twinge of deja vu.
His last movie, The Replacements, cast him as the captain of a ragtag football team that roars to victory.
Conor O'Neill (Reeves) is a compulsive gambler who bets on the outcome of sporting events.
When his luck runs out a few too many times, he finds himself in debt to less than understanding bookies.
Conor's last resort is to coach a group of underprivileged kids from Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green housing project.
The kids love baseball: it is one of the few things that make them forget about the harsh realities of their lives. They have more heart than skill and that's what endears them to the audience and ultimately to Conor. John Gatins' screenplay tries to weave two stories simultaneously.
There's the story of how these kids earn the respect of each other, their community and the baseball league. There's also the story of how Conor finds personal redemption through his interaction with the boys, their parents and their English teacher Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane).
Conor has always prided himself in being a hustler who can out talk and out smart almost anyone. He meets his match with the kids and with Wilkes.
It's only because they see through his facade that he is able to do the same thing.
Reeves's forte as an actor has always been reaction and physicality rather than dialogue and character insight.
His best scenes in Hardball are those when he uses body language to express Conor's dismay and disbelief at the hardships his young players rise above each day.
He has an excellent scene with Lane when Conor tries to flirt with Wilkes and she ends up treating him like a student rather than a suitor.
He is far less successful or credible during Conor's outbursts with his gambling buddies and the bookies.
One of the key elements of all these sports films are the eccentricities of the players.
The best example of this is the pitcher who must listen to his favorite rap tune while on the pitcher's mound.
The genuine scene stealer among the kids is DeWayne Warren who plays G-Baby who's too young and too small to play so he becomes the agent for the other players.
Warren's scenes with Reeves are hilarious one moment then supremely touching the next especially when G-Baby learns there is no uniform small enough for him.
By the very nature of its setting, Hardball regularly sets aside the laughs and veers into tense drama.
Though it's aimed at children, its adult themes might prove too intense for more sensitive youngsters.