Swing and a miss
This review is coming to you from someone who counts The Bad News Bears amongst his all-time favorite movies. Hardball, starring Keanu Reeves as a down-and-out gambler coaching some inner city project kids in a youth baseball league, tries to be something akin to a modern-day remake of that classic, but it falls significantly short.
It’s not the kids’ fault that Hardball doesn’t work as a whole. Anytime they are on screen, Hardball works remarkably well. I’d go as far as to call it downright enjoyable at times. It’s the crappy Keanu Reeves’ side story involving his character’s gambling debt and love life that fails on every level, dragging this picture down like a sorry civilian who bet $10,000 on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to win the World Series.
Reeves plays Conor O’Neill, a ticket scalper who has rung up a multi-thousand dollar debt with your usual array of shady characters. After going to his big-business office-type friend for a little monetary assistance, that friend offers him a deal: Coach some kids in baseball for 10 weeks, and he’ll get $500 a week for the bookies. After some patented Keanu overacting, Conor relents, and it’s off to the hood to hit some grounders.
The kids could’ve been great. They are as charming and funny as their 1976 Bears counterparts. The film follows some of the basic blueprints for a youth sports movie: the chubby kid with asthma; the pitcher who can only throw strikes if he can use his headphones, etc. The cast packs enough talent to overcome these stereotypes.
The problem is, the script doesn’t allow the kids enough time to transcend the stereotypes. For reasons that are beyond explanation, it puts the Keanu character’s gambling dilemma at the forefront. Instead of watching the kids join together as a team and an in-depth study of the children’s rough home life in the projects, we get the drama of Reeves sweating it out during the final seconds of a basketball game he’s bet the farm on.
The kids’ baseball team is nothing but a sideshow in this movie, a small part of the Reeves character’s redemption. There is so little time spent on the baseball diamond that Hardball can’t even qualify as a sports movie. It’s a sports gambling movie, and Reeves, while likable in his moments with the kids, is completely overwrought and laughable as a nervous gambler.
I’m well aware that the world is full of Keanu haters, and I’m not one of them. I’ve actually found him to be a decent, enjoyable actor on many occasions. This film won’t do much to earn him new fans and qualifies as one of his worst performances since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He has no control of his arms during his rants, flailing them around like evil bugs are attacking him during his monologues. I wanted to jump into the movie with a roll of electrical tape and bind those suckers.
The kids don’t get enough time to establish themselves as individual characters, but DeWayne Warren as Jarius “G-Baby” makes an impression. Warren is this film’s equivalent of Bears‘ Tanner Boyle, the pipsqueak smart mouth with knowledge beyond his years. The scene where he negotiates a fellow ballplayer’s contract with Reeves is one of the film’s better moments. Warren’s performance makes the film’s heavy dramatic turn toward the end quite moving.
The commercials for this one depict it as a good-time baseball movie appealing to youths. In reality, Hardball is just another film about a bottom feeder looking to improve his inner self, and Keanu Reeves is no Walter Matthau.