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Hardball

review by Zach B.

 

 

Running Time: PG-13 (For Thematic Elements, Language and Some Violence)

Running Time: 106 minutes

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane, John Hawkes, D.B. Sweeny, Mike McGlone, Graham Beckel

Screenplay by: John Gantis
Based on the book by: Daniel Coyle

Directed by: Brian Robbins

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $29.95

Features: Audio Commentary with Director Brian Robbins and Writer John Gantis, The Making Of Hardball, Three Deleted Scenes, Interstitials, "Hardball" Music Video by Lil Bow Wow, Lil' Wayne, Lil' Zane and Sammie, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (16 Scenes)

Released: February 19th, 2002

 

 

Keanu Reeves plays Conor O'Neill, a scalper who's having a hard time in his life. Living in the gritty streets of Chicago, it's somewhat surprising that Conor isn't dead yet. You see, Conor owes a load of money to various bookies in total of a few grand. After all the threats and violence, Conor's life is truly in danger and he needs all the help he can get fast.

So, he approaches his friend Jimmy (Mike McGlone) for a loan. Jimmy is a bit reluctant to give Mike the cash, but he offers him a five-hundred-dollar a week job to coach a struggling inner-city little league team by the name of the Kekambas. Conor himself is a bit reluctant himself to take the job, but at this point, it seems he has no choice since he really needs the money to pay off.

Conor isn't quite thrilled with his new job. He doesn't want to be there coaching the kids and just wants the money. But something happens along the way, something somewhat magical and unexpected, even. Conor begins to shape the team up from terrible ballplayers into young superstars (a typical cliché, of course). The experience of getting to know the kids, their neighborhoods and their lifestyle utlimatley changes Conor into a much different person than he once was. He realizes this, and even though he may not want to accept it later on in the film, he does and he knows it's some incredible feeling to cherish, let alone experience. I always find it pretty amazing how sometimes in life things we dread over end up becoming things we love, and in the end, really shape us to be better human beings.

"Hardball" opened just a few days after the tragedies of September 11th. The film didn't exactly bomb and was somewhat of a sleeper at the box office, surprisingly. Truth be told a good deal of films opening that weekend and a few weeks afterward didn't exactly light up the theaters as they may originally would have. For one things, studios cut some screens for their films and it also must be remembered that during those times, we were glued to our television sets and didn't exactly feel like being entertained. I think "Hardball" could have done better at the box office if September 11th did not take place, or opened at a different time. I'm personally surprised it did do as well as it did. I think solid word of mouth helped the film gain a nice audience, but again, I think too many of us were distracted to go to the movies.

It's not like "Hardball" is a comedy anyway. It's advertised as one and as an uplifiting story, which it kinda is, but it's mostly a rather subdued and depressing (not to mention incredibly realistic) film. Consider the horror of 9/11 and what so many of us did happen to endure, people looking for escapism and light comedy, and chose to go see "Hardball" didn't find much of it. I guess that sort-of amazed me as well, that the business a rather depressing film did during incredibly depressing times.

I must admit I wasn't expecting too much when I sat down to view "Hardball," but I came out really, really and I mean REALLY enjoying it. I was expecting a one track film with a plotline and theme all done before. True be it that "Hardball" doesn't bring much new to the table, but how it's all done, how it's all written and how it's a deep, moving and rather three dimensional film that really impressed me. There isn't one set path to "Hardball" as it does have a lot going on within the characters. I really got into it and I always wanted to know what happened next. There were times where I was on the edge of my seat, not to mention that a lot of the film has strong twists and turns.

There's so much to the story, which was something I didn't exactly expect. Perhaps "Hardball" can be best described as a character study of a man who keeps shooting himself in the foot, yet thanks to something he was forced to do and didn't exactly appreciate at the start, it made him reform to become a better person and more in-tune with himself. I'm sure we've all known or heard about people just like Conor. People who are going nowhere fast, depressed and drinking their lives away who try their absolute best to do something about it, but they just can't seem to bring themselves to due to their insecurities, their pressures and their fears. While no one can force anyone else to change, circumstances, environment and other people can make someone change. Conor is a perfect example of this. From the start of the movie where he's almost like a hacked bum right until the end where he redeems himself and has the strength to get things going inside quite well again. Conor, and everyone else in the film, are realistic characters that are portrayed rather stirringly and deep with heartfelt, true emotion.

How the story plays out, not to mention the strong themes and multi-layered plot all intertwines more or less perfectly. Yes, "Hardball" has some comedic moments but not too many of them, and while it offers nothing too new with the funny dialogue and physical comedy, it is still pretty enjoyable. Just don't get in expecting a comedy, as some of you may have from viewing the trailer or any advertisments.

But what makes "Hardball" work so well is how gritty and depressing it is. The realism of it all is shattering, and I really got in the moment during some of the most intense scenes. Of course we've seen a lot of other films before about hard urban life, especially with African-Americans in gang areas, and while some may argue the more scary scenes showing that are stereotypical, I didn't think that at all. I found them to be rather true, honest and sad from a young child's perspective. Kids have to face that in some areas, and I for one am thankful that I haven't had to walk home by myself when I was nine years old at night all while avoiding violent gangs and drug dealers.

The film does work on all sorts of levels, but the main theme and point of all of it is incredibly poigant, touchine and true to the core. Like I was talking about in the last paragraph, the kids don't have much in their lives. They live in a world of fear as far as avoiding trouble with those who stalk their streets, violence, their area and the projects that they live in. Yet being there for each other and playing baseball is their escape. They have a good time and they become more happy as they get better and have fun. But most importantly, it's Conor. Conor is there for them and gradually grows to accept them as an extended family of some kind. The children have someone to look up to with Conor, idolize him in a certain respect if you must say. As the kids get a lot of Conor who shows them a certain degree of care, trust and respect, Conor gets a lot out of his relationships with the kids.

Writer John Gatins perfectly captures all of the characters, themes, morals and emotions in his script seamlessly. Using the book of the same name by Daniel Coyle for source material, you believe that this is a true story, even though I bit there are a good deal of liberties (that's my assumption... I never read the book, but after seeing the movie, I may just do that). Gatins also has sharp and snappy dialogue, not to mention moving and touching scenes. Like I keep saying, "Hardball" can be a bit hard to swallow (no pun intended) due to its bleakness. But that's the point, and Gatins gets it all done.

Brian Robbins, who may be best remembered for his acting work on the classic 1980s sitcom "Head Of The Class" has been foraying more and more into behind-the-scenes work. His directing work on "Hardball" is rather impressive and incredibly solid. He sets the film at a great pace, spending the appropriate amount of time on each scene and always hitting everything correctly, not to mention honing the scenes themselves to the right level and degree. The baseball games are well shot and look pretty lovely, and they are edited so no one will get lost or confused in the action. The opening scenes are pretty great too as Robbins captures the depressing and dark life of Conor. The scenes involving the kids and their own lives, not to mention a more tragic scene in the last act is very well done too.

The acting in the film is well done pushing the film to really make it believable, and I think "Hardball" was well cast in the end. Keanu Reeves is great as Conor and I think shows off who he is and what happens well, but there were times in the more intense scenes where I felt he was acting a bit akward and choppy. Still, his performance is very good. The kids in the film are natural actors, and despite being funny, during the more serious times, they're rather dramatic and true as well. We get to know some of the kids better than others, but all of them are well rounded and each all share their common by playing ball and where they live (the kid who played G-Baby was a scream and a delight). The kids have good chemistry together and play off well with one another, while they also play great off Reeves and Reeves play great off them. And finally, there's Diane Lane. Perhaps my complaint with the film was that her part be bigger, and a bit more involved in some scenes, but I've said it before and I'll say it again: she's a fantastic character actress. She may not always have the leading role, but she always plays her parts to the best and quite strongly. She's done a great deal of work and with every film, she continues to prove how much of a force she is taking what may be the smallest or simplistic of roles and always bringing them one notch above how they were written. She's truly great.

"Hardball" can be a tough film to watch, but anyone looking for an incredible drama will truly get a lot out of the movie. While "Hardball" got pretty decent marks from critics, sadly, it was mainly overshadowed by the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Since then, that's died down a little bit, and hopefully "Hardball" will get more of an audience that it deserves with this video and DVD release. Whatever you do, don't miss it.

 

"Hardball" features a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and the result is gorgeous. More or less near perfection, just a few instances of slight flaws keep it from being perfect. Slight flaws? Some blemishes and marks here and there, nothing very distracting though. The same goes for the little noise, halo edges and shimmering here and there too. Everything else is amazing. The greens and dirt browns of the baseball fields, the solid blacks and shadow detail on the cold city streets and wonderful color saturation all over be it people (fleshtones are dead on) or objects. Detail itself is also very nice. The transfer itself is just to detailed, articulate and sharp. One of the best transfers I've seen in a long time. Very impressive.

 

Just as wonderful is the English 5.1 Dolby Digital track. Everything here is clear and crisp... the dialogue, the sound effects and music are played very amicably and do not overlap one another. Still, what makes this track work so well is how it really puts you in the moments the film offers. The surrounds used here are often powerful or subtle. Bass extension is very well rounded and good. The surrounds the film offers come with baseball games, the rain, fights and gang violence. The scenes with those kind of actions are superbly mixed together and like I said, really get you into the film more. The music itself, be it the moving Mark Isham score or the various rap, R&B and hip-hop tracks have this fine beat that soothes with the film quite well. Overall, very nicely done. Also included are English and French Dolby Surround tracks, plus English subtitles and English closed captions.

 

Not too much, but more than the usual standard Paramount release. First up, we have Audio Commentary with Director Brian Robbins and Writer John Gantis. This commentary is decent, but not spectacular. There are some slow moments where not much is said, and I kept hoping it'd pick up more and more, but it didn't. They seem a bit akward at first, but do get somewhat comfortable. The two offer insights on their crafts. Robbins has some points on his direction and the actors, but I was hoping to get more on the themes the film offers and how certain shots were approached. Gantis' comments are a bit better as he goes on about some inspirations and more of the story. The two share some production stories which are decent. Robbins also talks about music choices. Not a must listen, but if you liked the movie, it's worth a spin.

The Making Of Hardball lasts a little under twelve minutes and thirty seconds. It seems to be pretty promotional. Okay, it really is promotional. It has interviews with the kids, on the set footage, clips from the movie and interviews with Keanu, Diane Lane and more from the set. A decent watch, but just your usual interviews to promote the movie.

There are Three Deleted Scenes in non-anamorphic widescreen. These scenes slow down the movie, and we can see why they were cut even if Robbins doesn't offer an optional commentary on these. These scenes are actually somewhat depressing so they fit well within the film itself. Decent watches but they don't bring more to the film, and kinda bring it down. But Diane Lane offers a strong performance in the first scene "Duffy's Tavern." The other two scenes are "The Funeral Parlor" and "Talking To The Kids."

You all love Interstitials, right? Of course you do! They're little bumpers used for promo purposes, and there are three here. They're short and kinda funny. You have "Andre/Baseball Star," "Andrew/Bling, Bling" and "Kofi." Not bad,

Finally, we have the "Hardball" Music Video by Lil Bow Wow, Lil' Wayne, Lil' Zane and Sammie plus the non-anamorphic widescreen Theatrical Trailer. A somewhat deceptive trailer if you ask me... but if it gets you into the movie, that's fine because it's a fantastic flick.

 

"Hardball" was one of 2001's most underrated films, and while it got a decent audience, perhaps if a certain event did not take place, it would have brought more people into the theaters. But that's okay, as this depressing but wonderful drama can now be checked out on video and DVD. Paramount has put together a solid package with decent extras and a kick-ass 5.1 mix as well as a sparking presentation. If you like drama, this is a must buy. If you're unsure, I think a rental will convert you. "Hardball" is a strong film that is not to be missed.