Surprisingly, the redemption-by-baseball picture "Hardball" is not some warm-fuzzy "Bad News Bears" clone transplanted to the projects. It's considerably better than that.
Yes, it is about a drunk, gambling-addicted ticket scalper who spitefully agrees to coach a ghetto little league team for $500 a week to pay off a two angry bookies. Yes, the scalper is played by the historically vacuous Keanu Reeves, and yes, he's going to learn What's Really Important In Life from endearingly foul-mouthed street kids who live cautionary-tale type lives of inner city strife.
But as fast as "Hardball" sets up such eye-rolling clichés, director Brian Robbins knocks them down. There are no inspirational montages of the squad pulling together and honing their skills. The well-financed rival team? Present and accounted for, but not a major subplot. Ditto for the schoolteacher romantic interest (Diane Lane) and the headstrong tenement mom whose respect Reeves must earn.
Robbins even fades out to a later scene in the middle of The Big Game. He's that determined not to be a slave to stale storytelling -- which is quite startling coming from the guy who directed the all-hackneyed-all-the-time high school football flick "Varsity Blues."
"Hardball" does, however, start off on the wrong foot with a dead-serious boo-hoo opening setting up Reeves' sorry life of drinking and betting. From the ominous title credits and the dank accompanying score, you'd think he was a troubled cop from a gritty crime thriller.
But after establishing that the sullied hero owes $12,000 to the kind of people that come to collect packing brass knuckles and loaded guns, Reeves goes begging for a loan to a childhood pal (Mike McGlone) who has become a successful investment banker. McGlone isn't about to give him money, but being a shallow and insincere yuppie he seizes the opportunity to get out of "giving back to the community." He offers Reeves a weekly pittance to coach the ghetto kids' baseball team on his behalf.
While all that stuff was invented for the film, "Hardball" is actually based on an autobiographical book by Daniel Coyle -- a yuppie who coached a season of ball in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project. But the reinvented character's pessimistic indifference is just right for Reeves, who has not only gotten better at picking roles in the last five years, but has also become a good enough actor that he can convincingly pull off being fundamentally changed by his experience with these kids. He even cries with meaningful conviction when one of them -- inevitably -- gets shot.
The kids aren't exactly stock characters either, although they may appear that way at first glance. The roly-poly one has asthma, but his condition doesn't become a plot point. The littlest kid is too young to play under league rules, but Reeves puts him in one game anyway, jeopardizing the championship but knowing it's the kids' spirit that counts. And while they're cute, these boys are most definitely not sweet. They're largely angry types who have grown up before their time and without fathers. They find their inspiration in places no sheltered suburban parent would approve of -- like the star pitcher who keeps his game rhythm by listening to a continuously-looped track of Notorious B.I.G.'s nasty "Big Papa" on his Walkman.
"Hardball" does leave a few narrative blanks (doesn't Reeves have a day job?) and moviegoers more cynical than I (and that's pretty cynical) may not be able to see past the hackneyed concepts to embrace the fact that those concepts are willfully knocked into left field.
It's that very fact, however, which so deftly raises this movie above the tripe it could have been. The hard-knocked-life melodrama is kept to a minimum. There is no great epiphany for Reeves (although he does bark "You don't know s**t about those kids!" to someone who pooh-poohs him after he quits at one point). There's no contrived triumphant-underdog last act miracle. In fact, the film spends surprisingly little time on the baseball diamond.
Yes, "Hardball" does visit all the expected places. But it does so like a tourist at a cheesy roadside attraction, taking snapshots then moving on to a destination of considerably more substance.