Hardball is the kind of Hollywood movie that Americans love because it makes them feel good. Last year Remember the Titans allowed stadium seated audiences to view Denzel Washington's achievements to make them think that they were actually fighting racism, and now Hardball will allow Americans to feel like they are fighting poverty and keeping hope alive in the urban ghetto. A cross between The Bad News Bears and Dangerous Minds with a touch of Boyz in the Hood, the film has charms when portraying the universe of its youth, but gets lost when dwelling on Keanu Reeves' problems. The film really heads into foul territory with a lousy throwaway love interest, but fortunately doesn't highlight it.
Had Hardball focused more on the lives of its young baseball players, the way that Dead Poet’s Society does with its prep school protagonists while using an adult “star” for commercial purposes, the film would be infinitely stronger. Hardball only comes to life when the street-wise kids from the projects jive talk their way through the script. These aren't your hardened gang members—the vulnerable ten to twelve-year-old boys each fear going home in the dark for very real reasons. The camera follows chubby Jefferson (Michael B. Jordon) home after a late practice as he attempts to sneak through the neighborhood chaos and drug dealers without getting mugged, and another team member tentatively invites coach O’Neill (Reeves) to see his home in order to get some adult protection. The kid explains to O'Neill that the people in the projects have no furniture and sit on the floor so that they can remain below the windows to avoid the bullets. When asked what they do for fun, the kid innocently replies, “play ball with you.”
And that’s exactly what is most fun about the film itself. Although the night scenes garishly paint life in the projects as dangerous dens, the film resurrects itself when the kids strut their stuff—take a snooze when they don’t get screen time. Based on Daniel Coyle's Hardball: A Season in the Projects, the screenplay goes for realism as screenwriter John Gatins spent time coaching a little league team himself in Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green Project. Still, the kid actors must be improvising much of their talk. “Playing the dozens” is well developed among many urban black youth, and their jabs at each other are far too natural and funny to have been invented by some white adult visitor.
Although Paramount compromised the original language to obtain a PG-13 rating, Gatins' remaining lines are delivered with a natural humor. In one of the better exchanges the underage little guy, G-Baby (DeWayne Warren) acts as his brother Kofi's (Brian Reed) sports agent and demands recognition and pizzas for game winning hits. More scenes like this would help.
Far less interesting is O'Neil's background as a compulsive sports gambler and ticket scalper. Fortunately, the film avoids duplicating The Replacements by not developing the relationship between the boys’ teacher Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane) and O'Neil. The thinly drawn romance feels like something that is tossed in for commercial purposes—I can imagine Paramount asking “where's the love here?” But the real strength of story lies with the kids who keep “showing up” throughout adversity and in spite of the scriptwriter’s determination to redeem O'Neill's life and give credibility to Reeves' acting career.
As it stands, the baseball portion loses credibility for people familiar with the game. Baseball relies so much on skills and well developed eye-hand coordination, that it isn't believable that an amateurish rag tag team can suddenly turn into a championship team because Reeves enforces a new rule of positive team chatter and treats the boys to a free pizza dinner. Although trust and relationships can grow over pizza, not even Chicago's finest deep dish pizzeria can develop instant baseball ability—where are the Sandlot practice scenes to show the team’s growth? A more believable team transformation occurs when Reeves lets walkman wearing, hip-hop fan Miles (Kristopher Lofton) pitch the next game since a strong pitcher consistently elevates Little League teams to a higher level.
On a side note for the hardcore baseball fans: a detail that really distracted me occurs when O'Neil takes his team to a Cubs game to see Sammy Sosa. It's high noon when he meets his team, and we've heard on the radio that the game starts in an hour matching the Cubs with the White Sox. Now, it's possible to believe that O’Neil could use his sports ticket connections to get second row seats at such a “sold out” game, but they enter the park at night AND the stadium is neither Wrigley Field nor Comiskey Park in Chicago—the iron blue standards belong to Tiger Stadium in Detroit (a good five hour drive from south Chicago)!
Reeves' characteristically low key demeanor works surprisingly well as the baseball coach by not outshining the more charismatic kids. Reeves underplays his white crusader role and becomes attached to his young charges quite naturally. Unfortunately, the script relies on standard plot devises and stereotypes to get its message across—the enemy asshole coach obsessed with winning and the obligatory manipulative ghetto tragedy designed to turn the audience into sentimental saps.
Hardball is enjoyable when it allows the young players to let loose. But it stops short of being another Boyz in the Hood (that so effectively portrayed gang life in LA) by compromising its strongest parts—only allowing glimpses of life in the projects, holding back on the language, and not revealing how the relationship develops between O'Neil and his team. Instead, the film promotes Keanu Reeves as the white star savior, who seeks his own redemption based on the achievements of the talented young kids from the ghetto—sentencing a potentially memorable movie to the powder puff division. Had Paramount played more team ball, they coulda been a contender.