Toronto Sun (Ca), September 14, 2001

Hardball cliched but works

by John Kryk

Hardball is a movie about a baseball manager with a gambling problem. No, it's not the Pete Rose story. It's The Bad News Bears, updated. It's less funny, but more poignant

Bad News Bears, released in the mid-1970s, starred Walter Matthau as a no-account drunk who unwillingly takes over as manager of a hapless Little League baseball team in an upscale Los Angeles suburb.

Hardball features Keanu Reeves as a no-account gambler who, in his desperate hunt for easy money to pay off menacing bookies, agrees to coach a youth baseball team in the Chicago ghetto for $500 a week. He's white, all the kids are black, and that's the extent of everything they have in common -- at least at first.

Parents be forewarned. Just as Bad News Bears was somewhat controversial in its time period, the mid-1970s, for showcasing kids swearing up a storm, so is this movie today. Only the swearing in Hardball goes well beyond kids telling others to stick their trophies up where the sun don't shine.

I took my nine-year-old boy to the preview screening this week, and apart from the 50 or 60 "s---s" and the odd "f---," I'm hoping it was the first 10 or 15 times he's ever heard another nine-year-old put down a friend by barking, "You be my (rhymes with witch)" before demonstrating how that might be achieved.

Ummm, but there really are some good messages in this movie, right son?

Actually, there are. While the plot has more holes than the windows of the high-rises shown, and as much as the laughs at times are too forced, Hardball is striking in its portrayals of just how despicable, and frightening, life in the ghetto is for a kid.

For instance, Reeves' character at first doesn't understand why practices have to end so early in the evening. It's so the kids can get home before dark. When one boy doesn't, he gets viciously mugged.

Another time, Reeves walks one of his players home, and as they pass through his crumbling tenement they slow down at one family's single-room dive. It has a steel cage as a front door, and inside the family huddles low on the floor while watching TV. "Why are they all on the floor?" Reeves asks. Because, the boy explains, they can't get shot by a stray bullet if they're all below window-level.

"Are there any people who live like that in Canada?" my son asked me afterward. "I don't think so -- at least I sure hope not," I answered.

There's a romantic angle -- the kids' teacher, played by Diane Lane, falls for the coach -- but it's so predictable it almost undermines the heart-tugging yet heartening plot twist at the end.

The child actors are amazingly convincing -- so much so that it is hard at times to understand some of their rapid-fire exchanges. You believe them when they say the only thing they have in life to look forward to is playing baseball.

All that swearing is necessary because it makes this touching story believable.




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