"Hardball," a surefire heart-tugger made with skill and judgment, affords Keanu Reeves a career high point as a chronic gambler who finds unexpected redemption in coaching a team of adolescent baseball players in a bleak and dangerous Chicago ghetto housing project.
Inspired by Daniel Coyle's memoir "Hardball: A Season in the Projects," this endearing film strikes an all-crucial consistent balance between grit and sentiment. Writer John Gatins and director Brian Robbins understand how important subtlety and nuance are in telling a story that wears its heart on its sleeve.
As the opening credits roll, the filmmakers deftly establish that Reeves' scruffy Conor O'Neill is a confirmed deadbeat, living like a slob in a shabby apartment and hanging out at his local tavern, where his passion for betting on sports has plunged him $7,000 in debt. Facing dire threats if he doesn't pay up, Conor turns to an old pal, Jimmy (Mike McGlone), a successful investment banker, who's fed up with Conor's wayward ways but has an idea: Conor will take the busy Jimmy's place as coach to the Kekambas, a team sponsored by Jimmy's corporate employer, for $500 a week pay. Conor and the Kekambas not surprisingly regard each other with wariness but, of course, win each other over. The filmmakers undercut the predictable trajectory of their story with some telling touches. In his inexperience, Conor keeps the boys in practice until well past sundown, not realizing that nightfall heightens the danger of them being mugged by older youths or caught in gang crossfire. When Conor escorts one boy to his door and asks him why his neighbors are sitting on the floor, he learns that they are trying to avoid any stray bullets that might come zooming through their windows. It's little touches like this that drive home the ugly reality of America's enduring racial inequities without a word of preaching.
Gradually, Conor discovers just how important the team is to the boys in building their self-esteem and what a tremendous challenge their parents face in raising children in so dangerous and negative an environment. In the process, he comes to realize how important it is to take seriously their teacher's insistence on learning.
The teacher is Elizabeth (Diane Lane), a lovely but astringent teacher at the local Catholic school. Naturally, there's a spark between Conor and Elizabeth. Refreshingly, the filmmakers don't whisk them off to bed and a big romance, digressing from their storyline. They just let the two simmer in an adult way that reinforces a central concern of the film: Conor's learning how to grow up and take responsibility.
Robbins, who has "Varsity Blues" and "Ready to Rumble" among his credits, directs Reeves in an understated manner that makes us aware that the actor has a strength that comes from holding much in reserve. In the opening sequences, Robbins shrewdly trusts in Reeves' charisma to engage us in Conor, who at the outset is a reckless, self-destructive jerk. It's gratifying that this film, which shows the versatile Lane to such advantage, opens the same day as the dreadful "Glass House," which most assuredly does not.
The boys who play the Kekambas are very likable, especially Julian Griffith's burly but game Jefferson; A. Delon Ellis Jr.'s serious Miles, a gifted pitcher; and DeWayne Warren as Miles's adorable little brother G-Baby. Also key is John Hawkes as Conor's loyal pal Ticky.
"Hardball" is not merely a good-natured and humorous variation on "The Bad News Bears" and takes an unpredictably serious turn. However, Reeves and all involved are up to this development, allowing the film to accrue considerable depth and substance by the time it is over. To use an old-fashioned phrase, "Hardball" is heartwarming, especially in showing that even the youngest lives can have meaning. It's a welcome quality to find on the screen at this tragic week's end.
MPAA-rated PG-13, for thematic elements, language and some violence. Times guidelines: The film is too intense for the very young
Keanu Reeves: Conor O'Neill
Diane Lane: Elizabeth Wilkes
John Hawkes: Ticky Tobin
Bryan C. Hearne: Andre Ray Peetes
A Paramount Pictures presentation in association with Fireworks Pictures. Director Brian Robbins. Producers Tina Nides, Mike Tollin and Robbins. Executive producers Kevin McCormick, Herbert W. Gains, Erwin Stoff. Screenplay by John Gatins; based upon the book by Daniel Coyle. Cinematographer Tom Richmond. Editor Ned Bastille. Music Mark Isham. Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. Production designer Jaymes Hinkle. Set designer David Tennenbaum. Set decorator Patricia Schneider. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
In general release