The trailer for “Hardball” — by all past accounts considered a skeleton of any movie’s plot and a good indicator of who might want to go see the movie — hints at a baseball knockoff of Disney’s famously childish sports flick “The Mighty Ducks.” The two-minute preview suggests: Swap baseball for hockey; Keanu Reeves for Emilio Estevez (a fair enough trade); an all-black squad for a racially diverse one; Cabrini Green for an ice rink, and you’ve got “Hardball.” Fair enough, and as far as creativity goes, that’s about as much ingenuity as we have come to expect from Hollywood?s weakening think tank.
But that isn’t the same movie that Paramount Pictures screened across the United States this weekend under the same title and with a faintly familiar premise. The trailer was chock full of uplifting soul music, lots of baseball and interesting but typical child characters mouthing off to their elders, but never more than an occasional “Heck” or “You stink.”
The movie that screened before audiences full of well-below-teen-years children this weekend was certainly directed by a child-movie director, but was far more serious than a matter of who wins the Little League championship. Look closely and you?ll notice this chipper baseball flick was given an “R” rating, a much-debated problem that prolonged the movie?s opening until now.
A lengthy opening sequence introduces a bottle-bagging Conor O’Neill (Reeves, “The Replacements”) as he loses a rather enormous sports bet and is promptly confronted by two separate bookies looking to break the pavement with his face. This isn?t your typical bad-person-finds-redemption movie. Not only does Reeves play an alcoholic, ticket scalper and heavy gambler, but he also plays a bad actor — something we’ve become accustomed to in the rather extensive Keanu Reeves film library.
O’Neill tries to scrape up money and is offered a chance to coach a Little League baseball team in Cabrini Green, the notorious housing project area in Chicago.
Attempting to adhere to the rather simple bad-person-finds-redemption movie playbook, O’Neill fades into and out of interest with his team as he leads them to victory with the promise of pizza for every home run. If only Milwaukee Brewers manager Davey Lopes had thought of that one.
More than the team or its success, O’Neill’s gambling addiction is the focus here — hardly what any baseball-crazy kid pays seven dollars to see. One can only begin to imagine parents trying to explain the ins and outs of sports gambling to his or her child in a movie theater as the child inquires: “What’s a spread? What’s a bookie? What’s vig?”
Interspersed with his morning drinking sessions and Nostradamus-like gaming predictions are O’Neill’s patience-trying baseball practices with the youths. If the Bad News Bears were “bad,” then the Cabrini Greenn Kakambas are “bad ass.” Instead of the good-natured potty mouth one might expect based on the previews, these kids spout off Carlin’s seven dirty words at breakneck speed.
Further darkening the picture is the grim look at Cabrini Green life — something any kids’ movie can do without.
At one point, O’Neill asks one of his players: “What do you guys do around here for fun?'”
“Play ball,” the child answers, and in a moment of divine enlightenment O’Neill discovers his role amongst these boys. Only later do we revisit Jamal, a player O?Neill kicked off the team because he was too old to play under league rules. Jamal has become a hardcore gangster and there is a bleak allusion to the few options these kids have for fun outside of baseball.
Furthermore, these kids are so aware of their surroundings that they know better than to enter a building when a shakedown’s going on and they can identify gun make and model by ear. A shot rings out and a boy quickly quips: “Glock — Nine millimeter.”
Lacking kid-movie charm and failing to meet the sub-par standards of even the most awful gambling addiction movie, “Hard Ball” seems to have lost its place. Most movies suffering from indecision simply don’t know where to aim. “Hard Ball” takes aim, misses and tries again. Strike two. With an ending that rivals last year’s “Pay it Forward” in the depressing-endings category, “Play Ball” may have missed on all counts and struck out.