Billed as "the 'Bad News Bears' for the next generation," the Keanu Reeves starrer "Hardball" (IMDb listing) shares almost none of the offensive charm, low tech laughs or little league thrills as the 1976 Michael Ritchie classic that starred Walter Matthau. "Hardball" purports itself to be a grittier look at inner city life, yet the film is written from the perspective of a middle-class Caucasian loser. Directed by Brian Robbins ("Varsity Blues") from a book by Daniel Coyle, "Hardball" means well, and it even manages to grow a heart in the last act, but this idea needed to go back into the oven to cook for another 10 minutes.
Conor (Reeves) is a desperate, compulsive gambler trying to dodge the bookies and loan sharks that are chasing him around the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Offered a chance to coach an inner city little league team in one of the worse areas of Chicago, Conor takes the gig as his only chance to make some money to pay off his debts. Though the relationship between Conor and the African-American kids starts off rocky, the two sides soon learn to respect each other and begin to form a true baseball team. Working his way into the fabric of the kids' lives, he also learns first hand the horrors the children face during their daily lives in the projects.
Originally conceived and assembled as an R-rated motion picture, "Hardball" bowed down to consumer (and economic) pressures and was refashioned into a PG-13 film. While the movie doesn't have the feel of being whittled down into tiny scraps of narrative, there are some very interesting R-rated story points that still remain in the final film. Conor's gambling isn't treated lightly, as his debts are to very scary individuals who will kill him if he doesn't pay. You counter that with the happy-happy, joy-joy ad campaign for families that Paramount is running for "Hardball," and the effect is unsettling to say the least.
The best parts of "Hardball" are the realism that Robbins allows into the piece: Conor's desperation, his unwillingness to learn from his mistakes, and the horrors of the apartment dwellings that the kids live in. These tiny little remnants of the original R version loom large and proud amongst the more cliched, cutesy scenes of the game playing. With the exception of removing some profanity ("Hardball" must set some new kind of record for the use of the word "freakin"), the film still has the taste of the R-rated version. It's too bad Robbins and Paramount second-guessed their movie because I am positive there is a better, more compelling version of the movie somewhere in a vault than the watered-down version entering theaters.
Also unsettling is the film's narrow-minded sense of the African-American community that surrounds the kids. Seen through Conor's eyes, "Hardball" steps aside now and again to show us the terror of the kids' environment, but doesn't explain why anybody from this community isn't actively involved with the team. We see African-American parents and townsfolk cheering in the background of the games, yet every team coach is a middle-class white guy. "Hardball" is a story about a little league team, I understand that. However, Robbins introduces some caring African-American characters along the way, yet never bothers to do much else about them.
The last film in Keanu Reeves's mad dash to cash in on his "Matrix" fame ("Sweet November," "The Gift," "The Watcher" and "The Replacements" being the others), he is not the most logical choice for the complex role of Conor. Eager to provide grit and depth to the character, yet helpless to Robbins's overriding tendency to go for sugar, Reeves gives it a pleasant college try. His failure in the role is only limited to the script, as his performance itself is one of his better ones. At least it makes up for his god-awful turn in "Sweet November."
Paired up with a team of great child actors and a sweet turn from Diane Lane as the love interest, Reeves is prevented from failure just by showing up and running the lines. I never once believed Reeves in the character, yet I believed he believed in the character. Confusing? Not nearly as much as watching Reeves lip-synch a Notorious B.I.G. song in a crowded bar. Reeves earns his paycheck for committing to that scene alone.
In the end, the dangers of the ghetto life catch up to the players, and Robbins yanks on the heartstrings for a rather emotional last act. And that's the trick of "Hardball." Not feeling too emotionally involved with these characters during the run of the film, I nevertheless teared up at a pivotal funeral and felt the chills when the underdog team played in the championship game. The picture somehow got under my skin when I didn't want it to. I only wish Robbins would have stayed his ground, because without the integrity, "Hardball" is just another shallow attempt to heal the world through the power of sports.
Filmfodder Grade: C