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Gambling addict Conor O’Neill (Keanu Reeves) is in plenty of trouble. He owes money all over Chicago to some very nasty people. In desperation, he turns to his friend Matt (D B Sweeney), a broker at a high end firm, for a loan. Matt makes Conor a deal - he’ll “hire” Conor to coach a kids’ baseball team in the projects for $500 per week. The kids on the team have Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane) as a teacher, and she is none too pleased that Conor is now being imposed on the team; particularly when some of the boys are struggling in school. Despite his initial reluctance – and ongoing gambling problem – Conor has no option but to try to turn the boys into a winning team.

Review by David Edwards:
There are no prizes for guessing how Brian Robbins’ Hardball ends (the fact that it’s described as “inspirational” pretty much gives it away). And, it has to be said, the film does push the right emotional buttons at times. In getting there however, this film unfortunately reveals a serious lack of depth and a poor grasp of film basics. Robbins breaks one of the fundamental rules of filmmaking in that he fails to tell his story visually. Keanu Reeves’ character, Conor O’Neill is supposed to inspire a rag-tag team to beat all the odds. What we get is a motley collection of scenes in which O’Neill ignores the kids and wallows in his own problems. How this is meant to inspire the team is frankly beyond me; yet they seem to make a remarkable turnaround.

At one stage, Elizabeth Wilkes, the character played by Diane Lane, tells O’Neill that the kids “see something” in him. Precisely what they see is not explained; and we can only presume that the kids are far more perceptive that the audience as they can discern this special “something” from a character who’s basically a self-centred jerk. So when the story eventually turns “inspirational”, there is absolutely no reason for it, making the “inspiration” feel very shallow (if not downright fraudulent). The casting also has to be questioned. Let’s face it, Keanu Reeves was never going to work as an inspiration to anyone. The script problems are only exacerbated by his clunky yet oh-so-serious acting style. Diane Lane might as well have phoned in her part, so marginal is her character; but John Hawkes at least has a few memorable moments as Conor’s best friend. The heart of the film though is the kids; and by and large, they’re great. Pity the rest of the film couldn’t match their very natural performances.

The DVD features a reasonable “making of” featurette, a fairly redundant music video and three interesting deleted scenes. For once, the deleted scenes might actually have helped the final product. There’s also commentary from the director and writer; while this provides some insight and some cute anecdotes, it mostly serves the highlight the film’s deficiencies.

Although based on a true story (from Daniel Coyle’s book “Hardball: A Season in the Projects”), Hardball is a hollow exercise in manipulation. A lame script, under-developed characters and sloppy filmmaking add up to three strikes, and this film should return to the dugout.

Published October 3, 2002

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CAST: Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane, DeWayne Warren, John Hawkes, D B Sweeney

DIRECTOR: Brian Robbins

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

SPECIAL FEATURES: The Making of Hardball; deleted scenes; interstitials; music video - Hardball by Lil Bow Wow, Lil' Wayne, Lil' Zane & Sammie; commentary by director Brian Robbins and writer John Gatins; theatrical trailer; scene selection

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: September 19, 2002

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