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In between being an action hero in films like Speed and The Matrix, Keanu Reeves seems to like making the occasional uplifting sports film. In 2000 it was the team-that-comes-from-behind football film The Replacements, a movie about a bunch of pro-football wannabes who get a shot at the big time when the real players go on strike. And in 2001 it was the team-that-comes-from-behind baseball film Hardball, based partially on the autobiographical book by Daniel Coyle. Hardball tells the story of Conor O'Neill (Reeves), a hard-drinking, gambling-obsessed ne'er-do-well who has amassed a large debt owed to the kind of people who make offers you can't refuse. Desperate for cash, Conor turns to a childhood friend for a loan. But the slimy friend (Mike McGlone), a successful investment banker, uses the opportunity to make himself and his firm look good by paying Conor to coach a baseball team of inner-city Chicago kids. If this sounds like a corny set up, well — it is. And with Brian Robbins (director of the hackneyed Varsity Blues) at the helm, it seemed inevitable that the film would spiral into the melodramatic gutter. So it is a pleasant surprise that Robbins opts to take an atypical approach to the story, giving what could have been a tiresome, predictable tale a fresh feel. One major facet of the film that helps lift it above sloppy sentimentality is the interesting characterizations of the kids. The realism of living in the projects is told in bold scenes that show the violence, unpredictability, and lack of security that shape these kids' lives. This realism, along with fine acting by the children, helps the viewer understand why regular, safe baseball games are a haven for these children. The film is so realistic, in fact, that the scenes of violence serve as a warning not to mistake this film for feel-good hokum. But perhaps Robbins' biggest asset is Reeves, whose acting style is well suited for portraying someone who just needs a little help finding redemption. Here Reeves' lack of overly emotive acting ends up making Conor more believable. All these elements together make Hardball a thoughtful, satisfying film that feels familiar but not predictable. Paramount's DVD offers a clear anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The disc is loaded with extras, including a lively audio commentary with Robbins and writer John Gatins, a "making-of" featurette, three deleted scenes, a music video of the song Hardball by Lil Bow Wow, Lil' Wayne, and Lil' Zane and Sammie, and theatrical trailers. Keep-case.
—Kerry Fall

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