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:: Hardball

This is a very different role for Keanu Reeves and he shows flashes of how good an actor he can be. He plays Conor O’Neill, a gambling addict who is up to his neck in debt. A high-roller friend of his offers a source of income - $US500 per week to coach a kids baseball team, the Kekambas, from the infamous Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. You’ll think it’s Mighty Ducks all over. But the film seems to work.

O’Neill has no choice but to accept the offer. He has a tough time kicking his losing habit, but he gets some help along the way by unexpectedly bonding with the underprivileged kids, as well as meeting a pretty schoolteacher, Elizabeth (Diane Lane). There is some welcome grittiness from director Brian Robbins as he keeps the story relatively real. A poignant moment occurs when O’Neill takes one of his players home to the apartment block, where he observes and queries why the neighbours are sitting on the floor. The boy tells him that they have to stay below the window level. That is reference to the violent neighbourhood where drive-by shootings are common. It brings it home for O’Neill. The kids find him as a role model and they stay off the streets after school. There is a scene where the boys have fun with a Notorious B.I.G. song “Big Papa”.

O’Neill thinks that his life is pretty privileged after all, and the boys learn that white, middle-class ideas of having ambition and pride in performance are important. The smallest kid is too young but O’Neill puts him in a game for team spirit. Another has asthma, but it doesn’t dominate the story. These are generally poor and angry kids who have grown up before their time and without fathers.

You feel for the team, and Keanu Reeves does a good job as the coach to pull them together. Diane Lane only has a small role; therefore this could be viewed as boring and unnecessary. The film moves deftly from drama to comedy and back again. Maybe the director touched on several elements without fully developing any of them. The reality of the story means the language is very strong, especially by the kids. The rating, originally intended for age 15+ audiences in the USA, was downgraded because it was displaying authenticity. Marketing concerns led the censors to cut some of the worst language to obtain the lower rating. Overall, “Hardball” goes in expected directions but with its emotional ending, gives good value as a touching film.