By Stephanie Zacharek
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Faced with yet another sports movie in which lovably troubled kids triumph over adversity, it's easier to scoff and grumble than to feel even partially uplifted. So let's do it -- let's scoff and grumble. At least for a moment. In Brian Robbins' Hardball, a degenerate gambler who owes bent-nosed, bat-wielding Chicago bookies many thousands of bucks is coerced into coaching a kids' baseball team in a hardscrabble neighborhood. Predictably, he and the boys have their ups and downs. Predictably, tragedy threatens to put them asunder. But in the end, the reluctant coach's sour masochism is predictably transformed into self-respect as the plucky 10-year-olds in his care begin to discover their own worth, too. Hey. Wanna know how the Big Game comes out? Hint: If our hero could have bet on it, he wouldn't be in this mess.
Here's the feel-good part. Hardball is not as bad as it sounds, and at its best it's charming. Wooden, uncertain Keanu Reeves is no Walter Matthau, the memorable curmudgeon who led The Bad News Bears to the top of the all-time kiddy-baseball-movie standings 25 years ago. But Reeves' self-conscious stumbling as an actor actually works in his favor here. As Conor O'Neill, the gambler turned surrogate father, he comes off as an overgrown preteen himself, a guy who doesn't know how to act until his players show him who he really is. Meanwhile, director Robbins (the former Head of the Class star) has every sports-movie trope known to man waiting in the on-deck circle. No surprise there: His credits include the high school football comedy Varsity Blues and the equally lightweight wrestling farce Ready to Rumble.
As for the boys, all of them unknowns, most of them from Chicago, they are uniformly cute, likable and heart-rending (only the second baseman is playing with a doctored birth certificate). They include Michael Perkins as Kofi, star slugger for our ragtag Kekambas (named for an African tribe); Julian Griffith as plump, sweet-tempered Jefferson, who suffers from asthma; A. Delon Ellis Jr. as Miles, who can't get his heater over the plate unless Notorious B.I.G. is blasting through his headphones; and little DeWayne Warren as G-Baby, the Kekambas' loyal mascot. That half the roster doesn't yet have much acting skill doesn't really matter. We want them to hit line drives, win games and wise off, not recite excerpts from Othello. Let Keanu do the heavy thespian lifting. Or somebody.
The movie's genesis lies in Daniel Coyle's 1994 memoir Hardball: A Season in the Projects, about the author's experiences coaching a youth baseball team in Chicago's rough Cabrini-Green housing project. Screenwriter John Gatins has tinkered with Coyle's book, presumably to up the emotional ante and provide more opportunities for redemption. The protagonist is no longer a yuppie stockbroker but Reeves' down-at-the-heels desperado, and the obligatory Hollywood love interest has been duly inserted, in the person of Diane Lane as an idealistic schoolteacher who comes to see the potential for sweetness and light in lost soul Conor O'Neill.
Apart from setting career highs in the cliché column, Hardball's overseers have some very peculiar ideas about sports betting and bookmakers. But they get at least one crucial thing exactly right: Kids don't just love baseball, they think the game is magic, and the sheer joy Robbins conjures up as the Kekambas take the field is as real as anything you'll see in any baseball movie -- from It Happens Every Spring to Field of Dreams. Kofi and Miles and the others may not exactly be angels in the outfield -- angels don't call each other "bitch" -- but these terrific kids clearly come under the spell of the grand old game. And when their coach, converted at last to the innocence of their belief, hauls the whole team off to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play the Cubs in an interleague game, the movie hits an emotional peak.
Despite living in Chicago, none of these ghetto boys has ever seen big league ball in the flesh -- much less dared to imagine a wave and a smile from Sammy Sosa. When that happens, we forget all the movie's missteps. The moment is pure. It's true. Unless you're John Rocker, it's a home run struck for the good guys. After this, the Kekambas don't even need to take home the league trophy. Like the Bad News Bears, they've entered the secret realm of baseball, where what Shoeless Joe Jackson once called "the thrill of the grass" counts for everything.
And what of the movie's tragic shock? Truth be told, it feels like manipulation, like the moviemakers' failure to resist their own worst impulses and Hollywood's demand for blunt melodrama. Likewise Hardball's emphasis on the troubled coach rather than the troubled kids. Oh, well. Even in a championship season, you can't expect to hit everything out of the park.
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