"One of the most important things in life is showing up. I'm blown away by your ability to show up."—Conor O'Neill (Keanu Reeves)
Gin and tonic. Fred and Wilma. Ying and yang. There are some things in this life that were just meant to go together. Also on that list might be baseball movies and children. Ever since Walter Matthau drunkenly shuffled into coaching in the '70s hit The Bad News Bears, movie patrons everywhere have had to suffer through the time tested tradition of a grouchy adult and some loser kids overcoming incredible odds on the baseball field. In 2001 came "The Bad News Bears: The Next Generation" in the form of Hardball. Starring Keanu Reeves (Chain Reaction, The Matrix) and Diane Lane (The Perfect Storm), Hardball hits one out of the park on DVD care of Paramount Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Conor O'Neill (Reeves) is a down-on-his-luck gambler who's in need of a really big miracle. In debt to some shady loan sharks, Conor is at the end of his rope and desperate for any cash he can find. By phoning in a favor to a high class friend (Mike McGlone, She's The One) at a stock trading company, Conor is given the opportunity to coach a little league baseball team in the inner-city projects of Chicago for $500 dollars a week. At first Conor is reluctant to get involved with a group of African American kids that seem to hold zero talent for America's favorite pastime. But after meeting with the children's teacher (Lane) and discovering that the kids have some real potential, Conor realizes that he actually enjoys leading the kids on the mound. Through tragedy and triumph, both Conor and the children will learn that in life as in baseball, it's not whether you win or lose but how you truly play the game.
Lots of movies are released that I have no intention of seeing. You couldn't have paid me to sit through The Prince Of Tides or Crossroads (okay, so you could have paid me to sit through Crossroads, but only if Miss Spears were butt naked). My guess is that unless I'm forced at gunpoint, I'll never see either of those movies. When Hardball was released, I scoffed at it. It just looked…well, formulaic is the best word I can think of.
Boy, was I wrong.
Here is a movie that I really, really liked. I sound shocked because I didn't expect to like it at all. Not only did I like it, but I think it was one of the best films I saw this year. Now, before I get letters of protest, let me say that Hardball is not the perfect movie. It often times skips over characterization and leaves a few plot holes in its wake. However, it is a movie that moved me, uplifted me, and made me feel just a little better about life in general.
The baseball aspects of the story are sort of the backdrop to the themes of the film. Keanu Reeves as Conor is a broken man who is reenergized when he gets a chance to make a difference in some underprivileged kid's lives. If I can go off on a tangent for a moment, I'd like to say that I really related to this theme. In 2000, I had the opportunity to teach severely handicapped children at an elementary school in Pasadena, California. As hard as the work was (these were diapered, dirty, and often extremely violent kids), these children that no one wanted often rewarded me with moments of grace. There were times when there would be an amazing breakthrough with a child that would make my entire week worthwhile. I got that same feeling while watching Hardball. It's amazing what can happen when you open up your heart to others in need—as Conor found out, sometimes they teach you vastly more than you can teach them.
As a film Hardball treads the usual genre path. But instead of completely following the formula, Hardball moves into territory that is often darker and much more probing. While I felt that more singular interaction by Conor with the kids would have made for a better movie, I also think that the writer did a great job of showing Conor's character arch from frazzled, self-serving gambler to genuine life altering leader. This is one of the first movies where I really enjoyed Keanu Reeves performance. While his moments with the children are good, I found his interaction with Diane Lane's character to be even more fundamental to the film's core. You can genuinely see Conor's life turn around as he meets both kids and an adult that seem to have faith in his abilities (something that he obviously hasn't felt in a long time). Reeves performance often feels spontaneous and fresh, which makes me think this guy has more range than I thought. The kids in the film all do a fine job, though they sometimes tend to blend together except for a few star players (including the adorable DeWayne Warren as "G-Baby"). Diane Lane's character, while minor, is still important to the story and she does a noble job with her role. D.B. Sweeny (The Cutting Edge) is the only actor who comes off as one-note—his mean-spirited character feels a bit out of place in the film.
Some movies really surprise me. Hardball came out of left field (baseball pun intended) and really gave me a special movie going experience. It could be that I was just in the right mood at the right time with the right movie. Either way, Hardball is an enjoyable film about baseball and, more importantly, living a good life.
Hardball is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Paramount has done a great job at cleaning up this print and making sure that it's free of any major defects or imperfections. In fact, I don't think I spotted one thing wrong with this transfer. The colors were all spot-on with the black levels well saturated and even. This is a fine looking transfer and Paramount should be proud of their efforts.
The audio is featured in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround in English and French. Much like the transfer, this 5.1 sound mix is excellent. There are a lot of instances of surround usage during the film, and both the front and rear speakers are engaged through almost the entire film with ambience and background noise. Nary a pop, crackle, or whistle was spotted in any of the ensuing dialogue, effects or R&B tinged music. This is a very well done mix by Paramount. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English.
Paramount has gone the distance by throwing a few well produced extra features on this edition of Hardball. The first is a commentary track by director Brian Robbins and writer John Gatin. This is a mildly entertaining commentary with all the typical production stories and casting thoughts in place. While it's stocked with information about the movie, I did find it to be a bit bland for my commentary tastes.
Three deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen in a very rough form. Two of these scenes were justifiably cut, though a third ("Duffy's Tavern") might have added even more emotional punch if it would have been left in the final film. The 12-minute "Making Of Hardball" featurette is promo fluff, though I did enjoy watching the interviews with Reeves, director Gatin, Diane Lane, and other cast and crew members. Three interstitials are basically commercials for the film featuring three of the kids from the movie talking to the camera.
Finally there is a music video for the song "Hardball" by Lil' Bow Wow, Lil' Wayne, Lil' Zane, and Sammie, as well as a theatrical trailer for the film.
Better than expected, Hardball is a hard hitting movie that surprised even this cynical old judge. The performances are good, the story is solid and—I can't believe I'm telling you this—I even cried at the end.
This is a very underappreciated movie that's well worth your time. Recommended.
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