There is little chance of any filmgoer being confused about what Hardball has to offer. It is a story of underprivileged kids who want to play baseball, and the down-on-his-luck loser who reluctantly becomes their coach. The kids are African-American cuties given to hip-hop jive talk, and the coach is Keanu Reeves.
There is not much else to this tale, beyond the tough-minded parents of a few of the boys, and a dedicated schoolteacher, Elizabeth (Diane Lane), whom Conor (Reeves) has to negotiate.
As in another film about the utopian possibilities of education, Dangerous Minds (1995), the rapport that grows between pedagogic comrades Conor and Elizabeth is maintained at a level of mild flirtation. American films like to keep their teacher figures strictly non-sexual, which is hardly surprising in this time when the institutional care and protection of children is such a fraught, public issue.
Hardball is neither an earthy, minor-league sports comedy like The Replacements (2000), nor a big-league success story. It is a modest tale that hardly leaves the circumscribed space of a few homely, urban blocks. It manages to massage a typically Hollywood form of optimism without entirely surrendering to gloss and slickness.
Conor is the Bad Lieutenant of kids' baseball. The film gingerly dips into realism now and again to depict Conor's obsessive gambling habits and their violent consequences. But this is a fairy tale, so it is rather easy for the hero to walk away from this sordid underworld, as is literally shown in an amusing sequence.
The film also flirts with delivering a solemn message about the hard times endured in the African-American ghetto. Just at the moment when events seem to be following the generic formula of sentimental redemption right down to the wire, an interlude scrambles narrative chronology and introduces us to an episode of gangland violence. The outcome is satisfyingly tear-jerking.
Writer John Gatins seems to have been heavily influenced by the feel good sports movies of the mid '80s. While the general premise of a no-hoper finding redemption through coaching recalls Hoosiers (1986), Conor's big speech about how on-field triumphs can "lift us all up, even if just for a few moments, to a better place" closely resembles a similar testament in the teen wrestling drama Crazy for You (aka Vision Quest, 1985).
Keanu Reeves has, for years, endured an excessive amount of journalistic abuse. The notion that he simply can't act, and only stands around looking good, has become a facile, running joke that is never examined or verified.
Hardball shows how far Reeves has come in the acting profession since his first, essentially non-professional appearances fifteen years ago. He interacts well with the child performers and gives his dramatic moments an intense energy. Throughout, he displays a fine, physical language of action and reaction that often goes well beyond the standard, scripted lines.
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© Adrian Martin June 2002