Dir: Brian Robbins. US. 2001. 106 mins.
Set around a scruffy baseball diamond in a tough black neighbourhood of Chicago, Hardball is essentially a re-casting of seventies hit The Bad News Bears with less comedy and considerably more urban grit. As a family-oriented drama, it efficiently delivers its uplifting message and climactic emotional punch. But selling those elements won't be easy: while parents will certainly welcome the life-affirming moral, teens may find the approach too sentimental and younger kids may find a couple of scenes too intense (though the original R-rated version of the film was reportedly toned down to get a PG-13 rating in the US). Internationally, the baseball theme will add to the marketing challenges.
Scriptwriter Gatins and director Robbins (whose track record includes hip-hop documentary The Show and teen drama Varsity Blues) were also involved in last month's baseball romance Summer Catch. But Hardball, inspired by a non-fiction account of coaching America's national game to an inner city youth team, has a much more high-minded purpose than that generic effort.
Keanu Reeves' Conor is a down-on-his-luck gambler who agrees to coach the Kekambas, a neglected and disorganised team of pre-teens from one of Chicago's dilapidated housing projects, in return for a much-needed pay cheque from a friend whose securities firm sponsors the team. At first, Conor's interest in the task is purely financial, but it becomes romantic when he meets the kids' teacher (Lane) and emotional as he begins to bond with the young players, some of whom are still cutely childish, others tough-talking beyond their years.
For its first hour, Hardball moves rather aimlessly between Conor's struggle to escape his debts and the Kekambas' efforts to become a real team. Reeves is believable enough in his role and, though there are no real stand-out performances, the young actors playing the Kekambas (Hearne, Griffith, Jordan, Ellis, Lofton, Perkins, Reed and Warren) are impressively convincing.
The drama gets heavier in the film's second half, as Conor attempts to turn over a new leaf and as the fate of the team is impacted by the players' difficult homes lives. The portrayal of black urban life feels heavy-handed at times, but the pivotal scene in which team mascot G-Baby (Warren) gets caught in a drive-by shooting is genuinely shocking. The emotional climax has its overwrought moments but cleverly - and without being too ingratiating - turns tragedy into an upbeat ending.
Prod cos: Nides/McCormack, Tollin/Robbins.
Dist: Paramount Pictures
Int'l sales: Fireworks Pictures.
Prods: Tina Nides, Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins.
Exec prods: Kevin McCormick, Herbert W Gains, Erwin Stoff.
Scr: John Gatins, based on the book by Daniel Coyle.
Dop: Tom Richmond.
Prod des: Jaymes Hinkle.
Ed: Ned Bastille.
Music: Mark Isham.
Main cast: Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane, John Hawkes, Bryan C Hearne, Julian Griffith, Michael Jordan, A Delon Ellis Jr, Kristopher Lofton, Michael Perkins, Brian M Reed, DeWayne Warren.