|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 19 February 2002|
From the beginning basso thumping of fireworks exploding onscreen that leads to the crescendo of thunder that cuts through the liquid hiss of rain, "Hardball" has a driving backbeat and undercurrent of melancholy that gnaws down into to the bone. A surround sound system puts you in the middle of that melancholy, and into the harsh world where Keanu Reeves’ character, Conor O’Neill, finds himself propelled by his own dark circumstances.
A habitual gambler, O’Neill is a man driven by his own bad luck and lack of direction. In Chapter 1, the audience gets a good glimpse of how far gone O’Neill is in the beginning. Loan sharks in Duffy’s Tavern, an Irish bar haunted by O’Neill and his father before him, erupts into violence at the end of a game. True to form, O’Neill has bet more money than he has, and some of that money was Duffy’s, a loan shark he already owed.
The voices in the bar echo through the center and front speakers, making the audience feel seated at a corner table. As O’Neill literally beats himself up, fearing a beating from Duffy and others who might have once been friends, the crash of a car’s window and the smack of flesh against a solid brick wall echo from the speakers. In the end, O’Neill splashes loudly into a puddle on the sidewalk. The audience is reeled in by the sound, made a somewhat unwilling spectator by the sharp, clear audio.
Things don’t improve when O’Neill regains consciousness and retreats to his rathole of an apartment. The crunch of the baseball bat going through the wall leaps out of the speakers, cut cannily with voice shifts from O’Neill’s attackers that make the listener feel as though he or she is surrounded as well.
Finding no help, running out of time, O’Neill approaches a banker he knows and tries to borrow money to pay off some of his debts. Instead, bank representative Fleming sets O’Neill up to coach baseball in the Projects. The first visit to the Projects with O’Neill is a complete bust. He’s trapped, and the approaching rumble of basso roars coming from a gangbanger car’s thundering rap music takes on the aspect of the shadow of a predator as the vehicle pauses momentarily. The quiet in the rowdy dugout is suddenly telling against the hammer of the gangbanger car’s snarls.
Having no other choice, O’Neill makes the rounds trying to get any money he can. The backdrop of the musical score shifts the listener into the depths of depression and desperation with uncanny skill, showing the expertise of composer Mark Isham. The downbeat mood continues into Chapter 2, rolling over the audience with the echo of trains rolling down the tracks, and the gunshots hammering through the city.
In Chapter 5, when baseball practice begins in earnest, the surround sound system choice for the true home theater lover is again brought to the forefront. For anyone who has held an aluminum bat in his or her hands and met the ball in the sweet spot, the ear can detect no false notes in the DVD’s recreation of the experience. The sound is there, ball fans, and the only thing that’s missing is the vibration of impact in your hands and the sun and the wind on your face.
The mood of the music changes near the middle of the movie in Chapter 8, becoming lighter and more positive, but the undercurrent of the bass line never truly goes away. O’Neill is still under deadline pressure, and his prowls through the streets and back corner bookie joints are underscored with the hard music that follows him. In Chapter 10, the thumping echoes in the subwoofer sharply counterpoint O’Neill’s thudding footfalls as he races through an alley with bookie bone-breakers close on his heels. In Chapter 12, the depression and inevitability of O’Neill’s harsh existence is exemplified by the dry hiss of cigarette smoke he breathes out. Everything is hanging in the balance.
During one of the later scenes in the movie in Chapter 14, the team’s miracle pitcher (Miles Pennfield II) has been stripped of his Walkman. Without the Walkman, Miles can’t work his magic, can’t find the catcher’s glove behind the plate. Unbelievably, O’Neill steps out of the dugout and starts singing Miles’ song, "Big Poppa" by Notorious B.I.G. In short order, the rest of the team joins in, and the whole effort is at first presented a cappella. Amazingly, the song sounds like kids singing, left pure and true and natural, before the music cuts in. By that time, the audience is hooked into the action — and, after hearing the words to the song for some time now, probably singing right along.
And the audience is hooked. Despite the fact that we’ve seen similar baseball-themed movies featuring a group of wannabes or losers, "Hardball" scores big because it is different in many ways than the films that have gone before. Sure, the fantasy of the come-from-behind team doing well is there, but so is the harsh reality of the Chicago Projects. Kids may play in the baseball fields of that city, but they live and they die in the streets. Despite the dark side of the film, the story is primarily an uplifting experience, a story about kids and baseball, hope and dreams.
"Hardball" the movie is a lot different than the nonfiction book bearing the same name by Daniel Cohen, but the depiction of the world is a slice of life and death from reality. Cohen tells the story of two men, but neither of them is Conor O’Neill. Keanu Reeves’ character is pure Hollywood fabrication, but O’Neill is an idealistic work and a catalyst to make the rest of the movie possible. Reeves’ efforts are outstanding, and he comes across well as gambling addict and savior.
Brian Robbins also directed and scored big with "Varsity Blues," another sports-themed movie. A former child actor himself, Robbins’ skills really come across in his handling of the youthful cast in "Hardball." Robbins and scriptwriter John Gatins provide a neat audio commentary to the movie that lends another facet to the filming.
Watching the three deleted scenes in the special features section of the DVD is interesting. Although the scenes were written into the script and filmed, after seeing the movie, a viewer feels that they just don’t seem to fit with the final product at all. It’s fascinating to see how much those scenes would have jarred and disturbed the rest of the film, really changing the overall tone in places.
The documentary on the making of "Hardball" is great. None of the kids used in the movie were film personalities before this. Their raw enthusiasm and innocence shine through while watching Reeves, Robbins and the rest of the crew simply playing ball and goofing off with the children.
For the musically inclined, the "Hardball" video by Lil Bow Wow, Lil’ Wayne, Lil’ Zane, and Sammie rocks the house.
As a DVD movie experience, "Hardball" has a lot of game. The audio is great, as is the picture quality. The PG-13 rating is well earned for the strong language and the violence, though, so be judicious about bringing the movie home to small children. But spring is around the corner and the baseball fields across this nation are going to be greening up any day now. "Hardball" is a good way to kick off the coming season, sitting at home with a bag of popcorn and a big Coke, while waiting ‘til the weather gets truly warm enough to drive the long ball over the fence.