''Hardball'' is a two-hankie sports soap opera, but don't hold that against it. With surprising melodrama, the film packs some powerful emotional swings that will hearten the toughest of jeering crowds.
The title sounds severe for a film about a down-and-out gambler goaded into coaching a youth baseball team. After all, isn't this going to be one of those touchy-feely, cutely comic family flicks about a loser who finds direction in his life as mentor to a misfit bunch of inner-city kids?
The thing is, Keanu Reeves and director Brian Robbins are playing hardball here. This is not ''The Bad News Bears'' in the ghetto or ''The Mighty Ducks'' on the diamond.
''Hardball'' has lighter moments and loads of sentiment, but that's all neatly stitched into a package of somber grittiness, bitter life lessons and teary tragedy.
The combination shouldn't work, but it does. ''Hardball'' blends its seemingly disparate elements into a coherent film that's entertaining, funny, sad and even a bit uplifting and inspirational.
The movie was inspired by Daniel Coyle's book about his time coaching a baseball team in Chicago's housing projects. Reeves plays Conor O'Neill, a chump who scalps tickets to finance his real occupation: losing heaps of money on sports bets.
Early on, ''Hardball'' establishes a dark, hopeless tone as Conor spirals further into debt.
''You looking for faith? For-giveness?'' asks a priest who encounters Conor in deep prayer at a church.
''I'm looking for the Bulls to cover the spread,'' Conor replies in quiet desperation.
In deep to bookies threatening to rearrange his anatomy, Conor turns for cash to his old pal Jimmy, an investment banker. Jimmy (Mike McGlone) helps out with a weekly check as long as Conor takes over his coaching chores for a boy's baseball team in the projects.
''Jimmy, I ain't no good with kids,'' Conor pleads.
But the kids -- and the audience -- know better.
Conor reluctantly sets out to mold his little band of Sammy Sosa wannabes into something resembling a team. The boys, hungry for a father figure, see decency and determination in Conor that he himself doesn't know he possesses.
Slowly, Conor evolves from a bench-warmer in the game of human relations to a man who's at least awaiting his turn in the on-deck circle.
Along the way, ''Hardball'' trots out cliche after cliche, yet Robbins manages to weave them into a credible whole.
Coach Conor bonds with the boys over pizza. He finds a love interest in the youths' teacher (Diane Lane). He clashes with a by-the-book league official and an opposing coach (D.B. Sweeney) whose players are clad in swanky uniforms to Conor's boys' skimpy T-shirts.
And there's nothing terribly original about the mean-street milieu the boys move through.
What is original is how well Robbins combines engaging comic interaction among Conor and his players with stark urban drama. The film holds together nicely even as it twists from despondency to giddy humor to startling calamity and, finally, to uncertain hope.
Generally a better brooder than actor, Reeves delivers one of his best performances, infusing Conor with an effective mix of seedy street hustle and awkward paternalism.
The boys, many of them Chicago natives making their film debuts, are a delightful gaggle whose camaraderie captures the rambunctious team spirit of youths united in a common cause for the first time.
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