Reviewed by GREG KING.
Bad News Bears with attitude and a hard edge? Baseball and social commentary make for uneasy bedfellows in this new film from Brian Robbins, director of Varsity Blues, etc, which reflects many of the themes common to his films.
Conor O’Neill (Keanu Reeves) is a gambling addict deeply in debt to some dangerous bookies. To help buy his way out of trouble his investment banker friend forces Conor to take on a role as coach for a little league team on underprivileged ten year old kids living in a depressed high rise ghetto in Chicago. Gangs, drugs, the spectre of violence, and dysfunctional families are a part of life for these kids, but Conor finds himself a little shocked when he experiences this seamier side of life for the first time. At first Conor is reluctant to put much energy or time into his task, preferring to try and raise the money to pay off his gradually mounting debt. But the more time he spends with the kids the more he comes to understand them, and eventually he helps them find some confidence and trust, and changes their harsh lives for the better.
Hardball follows the tradition of films like Fresh, the films of John Singleton, Matthieu Kassovitz’s blistering La Haine, etc, which have turned an incendiary spotlight on the problems of these blighted urban environments, presenting these ghettoes as both a symbol and symptom of societal decay. But these films exploring the problems of black youths living in the ghettos of major cities have contained far more sincerity and understanding than Hardball.
Robbins’ direction is efficient enough, and the film has its heart in the right place and is full of positive messages. But, at the same time, it is also horribly cliched from the start and is overtly manipulative and saccharine. Unfortunately, much of the rapport established between Conor and the kids occurs off screen, and we never really get to understand why these cynical, street wise kids come to respect him so quickly and easily, which is one of the film’s main failings.
Reeves lends his character an earnestness and desperation, but his level of energy and restlessness is also a little irritating. Diane Lane finds herself lumbered with a fairly superficial role as a sympathetic school teacher trying to make a difference to the lives of her young charges, but is unable to bring much depth or insight to her performance. The young cast, many of whom are new to film, play their roles with varying degrees of enthusiasm, although sometimes its hard to understand much of their rapid fire, jive talking dialogue.
Despite these failings and its pretensions, I found myself eventually sucked in by the whole thing and found Hardball a rather entertaining and enjoyable film.