[Screen It]


(2001) (Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane) (PG-13)

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Drama: A compulsive gambler finds himself drawn to a group of inner city kids after he agrees to coach their baseball team in exchange for money to pay off his debts.
Conor O'Neill (KEANU REEVES) is a compulsive gambler who's always scrambling for money due to owing a great deal to various bookies who have grown increasingly impatient with him. When he goes to see his friend Jimmy Fleming (MIKE McGLONE), the broker offers him a proposition. If Conor will help coach an inner city kids baseball team, Jimmy will pay him $500 a week to help eliminate his debt.

Conor reluctantly agrees, despite his gambler friend, Ticky Tobin (JOHN HAWKES), thinking he's crazy. It doesn't get better for Conor when he learns that Jimmy has no plans of helping coach the team that's made up of a bunch of smart-mouthed kids from the projects who seemingly don't have a prayer of winning a game.

Among them are Andre Ray Peetes (BRYAN HEARNE), Jamal (MICHAEL B. JORDAN) and Jefferson Albert Tibbs (JULIAN GRIFFITH), the latter of whom is asthmatic. Then there's Clarence (KRISTOPHER LOFTON), Sterling (STERLING ELIJAH BRIM), Alex (ALEXANDER TELLES) and Miles Pennfield II (A. DELON ELLIS, JR.), the pitcher who's always dancing around to the one tune playing on his headset.

When Conor learns that he needs a full team or he'll forfeit games and thus lose his money, he visits the boys' teacher, Elizabeth Wilkes (DIANE LANE), hoping to convince her to allow Kofi (MICHAEL PERKINS) and Ray-Ray (BRIAN REED) to play. She informs him that the boys' mother has stated they can't play unless their academic performance improves, and so Conor promises he'll do what he can to make sure both happen.

As the season begins, and the newly reinstated boys' younger brother, G-Baby (DEWAYNE WARREN), joins them, Conor reluctantly being coaching the team, eventually coming to care about the boys, all while trying to deal with his debt, gambling addiction, attraction to Elizabeth and the efforts of rival coach Matt Hyland (D.B. SWEENEY) to undermine his efforts.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
According to my handy dictionary, definitions for "formula" include "A method of doing or treating something that relies on an established, uncontroversial model or approach" and "An utterance of conventional notions or beliefs; a hackneyed expression."

Overall, most people like the first definition in regards to the routines and predictability of the "formula" of their daily lives. They get up, prepare for work, commute there the same way, do their job, get paid, return home, have dinner, etc. and then do it all again. It may not be exciting, but that's what everyone likes about it.

In our movies, however, most of us don't like the second definition. We don't want the same old routine, but instead favor something different, whether it's a funny take on our daily lives or a completely fantastical piece of escapist entertainment where we see, hear and experience things that are out of the norm and thus unpredictable.

Anyone looking for any of that should probably avoid "Hardball," a routine film that follows the predictable path to such a degree that it could very well end up in the dictionary as yet another definition of the term.

Based on Daniel Coyle's literary work, "Hardball: A Season in the Projects," that itself was based on real-life events, the film follows the standard trajectory of a loser who finds redemption by helping the young and unfortunate who find hope and inspiration through him. If that sounds familiar, it should, as any number of films, such as "The Mighty Ducks," has followed a very similar plotline.

Few, if any viewers will be surprised to learn that the protagonist - played with eventually misdirected intensity by Keanu Reeves ("Sweet November," "The Watcher") - is initially hesitant about coaching the team of inner city kids. Nor will they be surprised that they'll eventually start to play better once he half-heartedly begins to help and get to know them better. Then, just as they're really getting good, he suddenly gets cold feet and abandons them, but never fear, for he eventually returns along with some late in the game theatrics designed to manipulate the viewer.

While that formula is rather similar in nature to that which occurs in romantic comedies (couple doesn't like each other, then become friends, then lovers, and then break up near the end before getting back together for the happy conclusion), it's not as easy to swallow in sports drama form.

Although I'm not familiar with either Coyle's work or the real life story that inspired it, parts of the film - that reportedly returned to the editing booth to excise its previously R-rated material - simply don't work that well. The most notable is the team's miraculous and quick turnaround in the quality of their play.

Initially a bunch of little league misfits - something of a 21st century version of the Bad News Bears - the kids suddenly unify and play like pros. That's to be expected of course. After all, we don't want to spend a few hours with losers, do we? Yet, beyond a male figure - Reeves' character - simply being present, buying them pizza and driving them home, there's no reason for us to believe that's reason enough for their miraculous change in play.

Conor brings no expertise to the field and offers no coaching or even layman suggestions regarding how to improve their play, yet they do. Although the thematic message of kids doing better when someone spends time with or pays attention to them is fine, the approach that director Brian Robbins ("Ready to Rumble," "Varsity Blues") and screenwriter John Gatins ("Summer Catch") have taken with the material simply isn't effective or credible.

The same holds true for the baseball scenes featuring the kids' various games, as they're surprisingly boring and less than involving. The off the field material doesn't fare much better, with Reeves' character dealing with some angry bookies, his lowlife gambler friend played by John Hawkes ("The Perfect Storm," "Blue Streak"), and the requisite love interest, embodied this time around by Diane Lane ("My Dog Skip," "A Walk on the Moon") who nearly looks as uncomfortable appearing in the film as does her character dealing with Conor.

Some of the young performers playing the kids - such as Julian Griffith, A. Delon Ellis, Jr. and DeWayne Warren (all making their debuts) - are decent and occasionally entertaining (if you don't mind the profanity), but others can't do anything with their sketchily drawn and/or poorly developed characters. Adult supporting performances from the likes of D.B. Sweeney ("Spawn," "Hear No Evil") and Mike McGlone ("The Bone Collector," "She's The One") do little or nothing for the film.

All of that said, and taking the predictability matter into consideration, the film may appeal to some less discerning, mainstream moviegoers who are typically suckers for pictures like this. Nevertheless, even they will probably have a hard time with the film's manipulative measures and/or Reeves once again straining to make his character's actions and dialogue credible.

I've always given the actor a great deal of slack - while others routinely trash him - and he's okay in certain parts of the film when he's playing it low-key. Yet, his big emotional scenes simply don't work, especially since the dialogue he's been given to speak would be unintentionally funny if it wasn't so awful, and all of that gives the film an even greater feel of artificiality.

Featuring an incredibly predictable storyline, various hard to swallow moments and developments, and probably some of the least engaging sports scenes in any such movie, the film works for a while and some may fall prey to the filmmakers' cinematic techniques. Many others, however, will see the swing and strike before it happens, calling this picture out long before the end credits roll. "Hardball" rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 6, 2001 / Posted September 14, 2001

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