Keanu Reeves stars as a down-and-out gambler who reluctantly agrees to coach a Little League Baseball team in one Chicago's toughest neighborhoods in order to repay some of his debts.
When gambler Conor O'Neill (Reeves) hits rock bottom after he fails to cover the spread on a Chicago Bulls game, he's the prey of every bookie in town. To dig himself out of a seemingly bottomless fiscal hole, he tries to squeeze a loan out of his friend Jimmy (Mike McGlone), a broker at a downtown Chicago firm, who instead offers him $500 a week to coach his company-sponsored inner city Little League team. In no position to bargain, O'Neill reluctantly agrees to do the deed. At first he sits hung over on the bench, chain smoking while the Kekambas toss the ball around a dingy field, swear and pick fights with one another. Eventually, O'Neill grows attached to the kids, providing them with leadership, defending them from fanatic rival coaches and teaching them how to win. In the meantime, he's getting friendly with the kids' teacher, played by Diane Lane. In Hardball's predictable, if workable, story line, O'Neill ultimately has to choose between redemption or a life of booze and crime.
Reeves' surprisingly impressive turn as the gritty O'Neill almost makes up for the schmaltzy and romantic Sweet November. As a boozy gambler, Reeves holds his cigarette like an old pro, with just the right amount of tremble, and is convincingly nervous, sweaty and awkward. Equally impressive is John Hawkes' performance in a small but fantastic part as O'Neill's friend and partner in crime, Ticky. He's hilarious without being cartoonish, and the same can be said for the cast of kids that makes up the Kekambas ball team. Sure, the potty-mouthed gang will tug at your heartstrings at every opportunity, but they are sharp, not pitiful. DeWayne Warren, Julian Griffith and A. Delon Ellis Jr. stand out as G-Baby, Michael Perkins and Jefferson Tibbs. Above all, it's a relief not to have to witness a gushy romance between Reeves and Lane, whose dedicated grade school teacher is appropriately low-key.
Hardball is based on Daniel Coyle's novel Hardball: A Season in the Projects, which was inspired by a true story, a genre that can sometimes lead to too-cute, too-sappy films. But director Brian Robbins doesn't go down that road. Instead, he's created a poignant film about a group of kids and one grown man, all in need of a positive distraction from a harsh world. O'Neill is not the great white hope for black, inner city youths; he's a lost cause. The kids talk trash, listen to gansta' rap and fight. While some have called the language in the film vulgar, it is no worse than the song lyrics kids listen to every day. That being said, Hardball is not really a kids' movie. The subject matter is slightly unsettling and the language coarse for those under 13 years of age (the film was originally rated R before Paramount toned it down).
Hardball is a nice change from a summer of over-hyped, big budget pictures; it's a little heavyhearted, but a good movie nonetheless.