March 10, 2002 -- When I rented the DVD of "Hardball" I thought it was going to be one of those Disney-like movies about sports, as in "Angels in the Outfield," or "The Mighty Ducks." It turns out to be a lot more gritty and dark than those kinds of movies.
It does have the misfit kids who are molded into a winning team by a grumpy, troubled coach, sort of like "The Bad News Bears." It also has the usual sports clichés, like the obligatory fat kid, the conceited, unprincipled coach of the opposing team (played by D.B. Sweeney), and the usual slapstick sports humor, like a kid getting hit on the head by a fly ball, har, har, har. More than that, however, it shows a coach with an addiction to gambling, and kids who live in terrible, dangerous public housing projects. This is not to say it isn't a formula movie, it is. However, the toughness, tragedy and street slang built into it give it an aura of reality. There is not much sugar-coating on this story. The story is based on a "Hardball: A Season in the Projects," a book by Daniel Coyle, who coached little league baseball in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project.
Keanu Reeves of "The Replacements" stars as Conor O'Neill, the reluctant coach of the Kekambas of the Chicago little leagues (teams are all named after African tribes). O'Neill takes the coaching job in return for $500 a week from a friend who is supposed to be coaching the team. He needs the money to help pay off his gambling debt. He pays little attention to the team at first, but is won over by their determination to succeed despite the odds.
O'Neill is trying to gamble his way out of trouble by placing more bets he cannot afford to lose. He is also trying to win the heart of a school teacher, Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane of "The Perfect Storm"). Will O'Neill pull his life back together? Will he find true love? Will the Kekambas win the championship? These questions are easy, but the story has some hard lessons, too. It also has the following line of dialogue. "I am blown away by your ability to show up." It is not one of the smartest lines of dialogue I've ever heard, but it sort of works in the context of the film. The real message of the film is that despite O'Neill's failings, he is a good-hearted person. The kids are basically good kids. What they need is support from someone who believes in them, so they, in turn, can start believing in themselves.
Reeves is very effective as the coach, and Lane, a fine actress, does her usual solid work in a strong supporting role. The kids are also good. Probably the cutest of the kids is young DeWayne Warren, who plays Jarius 'G-Baby' Evans, small in stature, but big-hearted. There is an effective soundtrack (the DVD comes with a music video, "Harball" by Lil Bow Wow, Lil'Wayne, Lil'Zane and Sammie. This film rates a C+.
The DVD comes with the usual extras, commentary by director Brian Robbins and writer John Gatins, a "making of Hardball" featurette and deleted scenes. The picture aspect ratio is widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1. Available audio tracks are English and French.
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