Have you seen The Mighty Ducks? You know, that Disney movie about a disillusioned grown-up who finds redemption by teaching a bunch of kids to play ice hockey? No? Then why the hell not? It's clever, amusing, unashamedly sentimental and more fun than a bucket of monkeys. Well, for 80 minutes at least, Hardball is The Mighty Ducks but with baseball. And it's just as sentimental, funny and monkey-bucket fun.
Keanu Reeves is Conor O'Neill, a Chicago Irish gambling addict in deep debt to some violence-prone bookies. Desperate for cash he takes a job coaching a ghetto kids' baseball team. At first it's his idea of personal hell, but, wouldn't you know it, before long he's bonding with the sprogs, helping them find a better way through life and discovering his own righteous path, too. Oh, and he also starts falling for the kids' foxy schoolteacher Miss Wilkes (Diane Lane)...
It's simple stuff to be sure, but it's done so damn well you really don't mind. The kids are the usual selection of clichés (fat kid, angry kid, little kid, weirdo kid and so on) but they're sharply differentiated and well played. DeWayne Warren is spectacularly good as the team's mascot, G-Baby, pulling off an astounding mix of kid-in-Jerry-Maguire cuteness and gangsta rappa attitude.
And Keanu? He's perfectly cast, his trademark dippy expression and loose-limbed cool for once working for rather than against the character. He makes Conor as seedy and as likeable as he needs to be, and even holds his own when the film detours from its usual path of feel-good wish fulfilment into (ill-advised) darker places.
Yes, that's right: darker places. The more observant among you will have noticed that we said this 106-minute movie was 80 minutes of The Mighty Ducks. That's because the final 26 minutes veer into Clockers territory, as director Brian Robbins shoves the tale's bleak background to the fore and indulges in a weepy liberal guilt-trip. Heavyhanded and shockingly clumsy, it takes some of the shine off a mammothly enjoyable film.