Directed by Brian Robbins
Written by John Gatins
At this point in the marathon, I have explored enough films to be able to call the genre diverse in its deliveries. There has been major leagues, minor leagues, little leagues, Negro Leagues, players, teams, etc. So while I would like to say Hardball is something new and different, it isn’t because The Bad News Bears showed us little league baseball. However, little league baseball is something that seems to be under represented in the genre, and including the inner city element is able to bring out something a little different that the California suburban little league of The Bad News Bears. Suffice it to say, I think we may find a little more diversity within the framework of the baseball movie moving forward, but there will be a lot of re-treading too. Hardball is a little bit of both.
Conor (Keanu Reeves) is a career gambler who learned from his father. He and his friend Ticky (John Hawkes) go around Chicago to barkeeps and other under the table bookies to make substantial sports bets. Behind the proverbial 8 ball, Conor goes to a rich, respectable friend looking for help. Instead of giving Conor a handout, Hyland agrees to give Conor a check for $500 each week to help with his debt, but Conor must coach an inner city little league team. Disinterested in the gig, but with nowhere else to go, Conor begins to bond with the kids as they, and their teacher Ms. Wilkes (Diane Lane), begin to trust him. Ready to leave at the drop of a hat, Conor too begins to grow fond of his team.
As far as the baseball action goes, since I will delve deeper into the narrative for the remainder of this review, Hardball is just okay at best. Really baseball is just the backdrop for the rest of the movie to unfold. These kids love the game, but it’s the last thing on their mind, which makes it all the more important for it to provide a distraction, and escape from their lives in the projects. There are hints to playing at what The Bad News Bears does in terms of the administration abusing the league for their own desires of winning, instead of championing the league to build strong character and habits from the kids, and allowing them the escape they so deeply need. However, these elements are buried in the narrative, along with the “coaching” Conor provides in order to turn the team around into winners.
But like I said, the baseball is the backdrop, so I can almost excuse those qualms, but the drama is not played very well either. This is a story, based on the book by journalist Daniel Coyle, which has tremendous potential, yet is continually plays it safe instead, failing to make any lasting or impressionable moments. The big dramatic event near the end pulls good emotion, but it hardly feels earned, which is a shame. Instead of being a transformative and emotional story, Hardball is derivative and flat in all the places it should be impactful. There is value here, but Robbins fails to glean it from the story and put it onto the screen very effectively. I could see it working much better in a remake, though it would likely be the last in a line of baseball movies executives would think to take on.
The film focuses too much on the story of Conor and ignores the more compelling elements of the kids stories, or of Ms. Wilkes story. Conor is a terrible person with a serious problem and for a good part of the film remains a terrible person even to the kids and Ms. Wilkes who seem to blindly trust him and respect him. Not to mention Keanu Reeves, who I usually try to defend, is rather horribly over the top in this. Ms. Wilkes’ motivations seem slim as well, and her story could have used at least a little enlightening to understand where she comes from, why she wants to help these kids, and most importantly why she wants to help Conor at all. Hardball is a missed opportunity, which has its flashes of brilliance, but never anything sustained, yet I still believe in this story.