Throughout his career, actor Keanu Reeves has played a gamut of roles on the big screen. He got his big break in 1989 by playing 'dudes' in films such as "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "Parenthood", went on to become an action hero in films such as "Speed", "Point Break", and "The Matrix", and dabbled as the occasional villain, such as in "The Gift" and "The Watcher". In the past year, with films such as "The Replacements" and "Sweet November", it seems that the thirty-seven year old actor has been drawn to films about men overcoming their personal demons on the road to redemption. Such is the case with his latest role in "Hardball" (based on the memoirs of Daniel Coyle), where Reeves plays a compulsive gambler tasked with coaching an inner-city kids' baseball team. Though "Hardball" treads some very familiar territory (i.e. sports films in which a group of underdog kids melt the cold heart of a crusty curmudgeon), it still manages to be a decent and undemanding heart-tugger that presses all the right buttons.
Within the opening scene, the audience is given all they need to know about Conor O'Neill (Reeves)-an unkempt deadbeat who prefers to spend his days either in his rundown apartment or at the local tavern. Unfortunately, Conor is in the hole for $7000 of unpaid gambling debts, so he turns to his well-heeled investment banker friend Jimmy (Mike McGlone of "The Bone Collector"). But instead of a loan, Jimmy gives Conor a job coaching a kid's baseball team in the Chicago Housing Authority league for $500 a week. In desperate need of the cash, Conor reluctantly accepts the job.
Unfortunately, the job is much harder than it sounds. Conor is introduced to the team, a rag-tag group of misfits who don't want to be there either. True to form, there's the hefty asthmatic kid (Julian Griffith), the pint-sized player (DeWayne Warren), the pitcher who only responds to gangsta rap (Alan Ellis Jr.), etc. Conor also gets first-hand experience of life on the streets, where playing baseball after dusk invites violence, and the kids are on the constant lookout for drive-by shootings. Then there's also the requisite love interest in the form of Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane of "The Perfect Storm"), who is the kids' teacher. At first, Conor treats his job as a chore, but over time, he gradually develops an understanding of the importance of what he is doing with the kids, while repairing his own tattered self-respect in the process.
True, "Hardball" is a rehash of films such as "The Bad News Bears", and it hits all the notes that you would expect. Director Brian Robbins, whose previous credits include "Varsity Blues", has a good understanding of the material, and he appropriately has Reeves delivering an understated performance. As a result, Reeves is both credible and at ease in the role of the reluctant coach, and his scenes with the likable assortment of kid actors sparkles with chemistry (arguably the best parts of the film). On the other hand, Lane exudes warmth and chemistry, though it would have been nice if she had been given a more substantial role.
After a week marked by catastrophic events in the United States, "Hardball" is a welcome diversion that is both heartwarming and even occasionally inspiring. This based-on-a-true-story sports movie may not break any new ground or win any awards, but it doesn't matter. Instead, it serves as a gentle reminder that even with all the cruelty and injustice in the world, there are still those who manage to find within themselves the courage to make a difference-- selfless acts which touch us all in the end.