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Friday, September 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

'Hardball' fouls out as Reeves never warms up

Seattle Times movie critic

Like "The Bad News Bears" back in 1976, "Hardball" finds most of its comedy in the supposedly hilarious spectacle of little kids swearing. Here, updated to inner-city Chicago in 2001, fifth-graders call each other "bitch" and use the s-word a lot, and it's funny for about two seconds.

But "Hardball," it turns out, has more than cutting-edge humor on its mind; this is supposed to be the heartwarming, inspirational tale of a man who discovers his own worth by coaching a baseball team in the projects. And it's pure soap opera.

I've no doubt that Daniel Coyle, whose book "Hardball: A Season in the Projects" inspired the movie, is a terrific guy who helped a lot of kids and learned a great deal during his stint as coach of a Cabrini-Green baseball team. In the movie, however, he's renamed Conor O'Neill and given all sorts of issues: He's addicted to betting on sports teams, he doesn't have a job, he's hounded by debts, he's got a drinking problem. And he's played by Keanu Reeves, who brings his air of perennial disengagement to the role.

"Hardball"

*
With Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane, John Hawkes, D.B. Sweeney, Mike McGlone. Directed by Brian Robbins, from a screenplay by John Gatins, based on a book by Daniel Coyle. 102 minutes. Rated PG-13, for thematic elements, language and some violence. Several theaters.

For the record, Reeves does not say "whoa" once in this movie, but otherwise the Reeves trademarks are displayed in full force: the blank eyes, the taciturn expression, the jerky hand gestures (elbows bent, fingers splayed apart) in moments of extreme passion. Conor undergoes a journey of redemption during the film, but you can't tell by Reeves' performance — he's as low-key at the end as he is in the beginning.

So director Brian Robbins relies on the screenplay to relate Conor's transformation (one character mentions that Conor has told him about every kid on the team; this is news to the audience, who didn't know yet that Conor was at all interested). Mark Isham's soppy score is also called into play, to alert us to moments of poignancy.

Every possible cliché is called in off the bench here: Conor's down-and-out apartment; the pretty teacher (Diane Lane) who, eyes blazing, says, "These kids trust you!"; the big game; the big tragedy. I won't go into what happens, except to say that it feels obscene when, after gut-punching the audience with a horrific event (one that mirrors the tragic acts of violence against children that take place in real inner-cities across America), Robbins takes us right back to the hilarious cussing. Dry your tears, folks, we've got a ball game to play.

The one redeeming feature of this movie is the appealing team of kids, all of whom are terrific ballplayers and some of whom show signs of being fine actors someday. But in the end, it's Reeves' movie to carry, and he can't even get to the ball. In a final close-up, we see him back-lit stunningly against the sun, with an expression that tells us ... alas, nothing at all.

Moira Macdonald can be reached at 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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