Hardball

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Some movies are good enough up to the point that they do something dreadful and manipulative to yank tears from the audience. “Hardball” pulls that kind of stunt but is at a disadvantage: It was a bad movie already. The shamelessness of its final act knocks it down not from OK to bad, but from bad to unforgivable.

Keanu Reeves, without emotion as always, is a Chicago ticket-scalper named Conor O’Neill who survives by betting on professional sports and staying one step ahead of the bookies who have baseball bats.

To get him out of a debt, and despite his protestations that “I ain’t no good with kids,” his businessman friend pays him to coach an inner-city youth baseball team that his company sponsors. These fatherless kids live in terrifying housing projects, and baseball — which they’re not especially good at — is their only release.

What happens from there could not be more predictable if Miss Cleo herself foretold it. What’s odd is that it’s told in a sort of movie shorthand (written by John Gatins, working from Daniel Coyle’s book). There is no cause and effect. The kids start liking Conor, but not because of anything he does. They improve at baseball, but no reason is given for that. Conor becomes less selfish, but there’s no indication it stems from his interaction with the boys. The movie knows it has to arrive at these points — selflessness, better team morale, friendship — but it has no clue what roads to take. So it just leaps ahead to them, like a truly horrible rough draft of a mediocre student-written movie script.

There is a romance, too, that is the very definition of obligatory. (“Movies always have a romance, right? Well, we’d better put one in, too!”) It’s between Conor and Elizabeth (Diane Lane), who is the boys’ schoolteacher. No more need be said of this, ever.

So there is not an ounce of originality so far. The kids are rather funny, insofar as urban youths who swear a lot are funny, and some border on sweetness. But Keanu’s woodenness makes him completely uninteresting as a character, and everything going on is humorless, treacly and absolutely uncompelling.

And then it happens. Director Brian Robbins (“Varsity Blues”), realizes there’s one movie cliche he hasn’t tapped yet: the tear-jerker scene. (If you’re worried about spoilers, skip now to the concluding paragraph.) The writers, fortunately, gave him one — again, in shorthand.

“We need to make the audience cry somehow.” “But how?” “Aw, let’s just kill a kid. Lunch, anyone?”

It is cheap and exploitative and unfair and vicious. It shamelessly uses the life of probably the most likable character in the movie as a bargaining chip for our emotions. It is the equivalent of bringing home an adorable new puppy just so you can watch the horror in our faces when you subsequently throw it into the trash compactor.

It isn’t that a child should never die in a movie. It’s that if you’re going to do it, you’d better make darn sure you do it right. Do it for the right reasons (hint: not for easy emotional drama), do it tastefully, and do it with class. “Hardball” does it wrong, wrong, wrong, and its desperate motives are painfully clear.

But as I said, it wasn’t a good movie anyway. Prior to the finale, the grade I’d been formulating was somewhere in the C- or D+ range. By the end, as I fled the theater with ill wishes for everyone involved, including the projectionist and the guy who sold popcorn, I had become considerably less charitable.

F (; PG-13, a lot of swearing, some violence.)

In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.

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