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Give credit to the makers of Hardball for their inspired casting: You know that life in the projects has got to be bad when their young inhabitants choose to spend their free time with Keanu Reeves. As Conor O’Neill, Reeves is a compulsive gambler who gets coerced into coaching an inner-city baseball team in exchange for a loan to pay off his debts. Though he proves his initial protest that he “ain’t good with kids” and does nothing in the way of coaching besides showing up with equipment and uniforms, Conor quickly becomes a father figure to a crew eager to look up to whoever will make himself available to them, even a lunkheaded white boy.
Hardball purports to be the story of a man transformed by his exposure to how the other half lives, but the movie is best when it’s focused on the kids. Though their primary charm is apparently their propensity to swear like sailors and say things such as “You suckjust like my girlfriend,” each one of these tweens is shown to be more vulnerable than his thuggish exterior suggests. Julian Griffith delivers a credible nonstop whine as Jefferson, the tubby asthma sufferer who’s afraid to walk home alone, and A. Delon Ellis Jr. brings a sweetness to Miles, the seemingly apathetic pitcher who never takes off his headphones, because he relies on the beats of Biggie Smalls to help him strike out his opponents. But DeWayne Warren offers the film’s most emotionally wrenching performance as G-Baby, the runt of the litter who cries when he learns that he’s too young to play beside his older brother and is desperate to be considered part of the team, even as a bench warmer.
In comparison, Conor’s trials aren’t all that interesting. Co-writers Daniel Coyle (whose book chronicling the history of Chicago’s Cabrini Green teams served as the film’s basis) and John Gatins allow the evidently jobless Conor little variety in his routinewatch game, become exasperated, chain-smoke while worrying about money. A sequence showing him diligently picking up his weekly coaching stipend and delivering it to his potential kneecap-buster clumsily attempts to convey his newfound sense of responsibilitythe film’s sole indication that some kind of reformation is taking placeand after taking the kids out for pizza and driving a couple of them home after practice, he apparently starts to care.
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Conor learns about the realities of the players’ lives through incidents both unfortunate for them (a mugging and a shooting) and unfortunate for us (Conor’s awkward exchanges with the boys’ teacher, played with scholarly sternness by Diane Lane). Besides Miles’ rhythm-induced no-hitters, there’s nothing engaging about these kids at play; the more compelling scenes take place off the field and demonstrate why the players want Conor to stick around, offering glimpses of the boys nervously checking out the gangs outside their run-down apartment buildings or explaining to their coach that people in the neighborhood tend to sit on the floor when at home, below window level and thus shielded from bullets.
With its potty-mouthed little men a far cry from the white-bread players of most baseball movies, Hardball manages to be entertaining despite falling into clichéd melodrama in its final moments. It’s then, as Conor gives an overplayed, cornily inspirational speech, that you realize how unobtrusive the usually bumbling Reeves has been to this point. As he proved in The Devil’s Advocate and The Matrix, Reeves is best in roles that don’t demand a lot of emotion. For most of Hardball, his troubled gambler expresses himself with no more fanfare than a slightly raised voice and occasional pacing, and the point is sufficiently made. But when the script goes all Sweet November on him at the end, Reeves’ affected intensity makes his character’s attestations of how deeply coaching the team has moved him more eye-rolling than uplifting.
Two Can Play That Game proposes that dating is as much of a game as baseball, though someone’s usually kept in the dark about how to play. Shanté (Vivica A. Fox) is the ultimate Rules girl, dispensing relationship wisdom to her lovesick friends while confident that she has her perfect boyfriend, Keith (Morris Chestnut), firmly in check. When she catches him out with another womanworse yet, while she’s with her friendsShanté executes a 10-day plan to exact revenge and tighten the reins.
Her strategies include not only not placing but also never returning phone calls, initiating faux breakups, and making herself night-on-the-town beautiful before dropping off a box of Keith’s stuff, leaving only after ensuring that he’s turned on. Outrageous? Not really, but the whole approach does seem a little absurd given that Shanté is torturing the man with whom she expects to stay.
Writer and first-time director Mark Brown constructs the movie like a self-help video, with Shanté regularly addressing the camera as she gives examples of bad relationships and then tries step by step to salvage her own. Though such a precious gimmick could easily become tiresome, Fox manages to keep Shanté’s confident alpha-female persona from appearing preachy, and her to-the-audience asides reveal a playful side that the always-cool Shanté seldom shows in her interaction with others.
Brown, who explored dating from a male perspective in his screenplay for 1997’s How to Be a Player, proves in Two Can Play That Game that he knows what women want, too: Shanté and her girlfriends dish about men’s bad habits (checking out other women), pitiful excuses (“Perfume? I was hugging my mother!”), and redeeming qualities (knowing how to “take care of the business” trumps a set of bad teeth). Brown keeps the film from being an estrogenfest, however, by giving equal time to Keith and his ever-scheming friend Tony (Anthony Anderson). The scenes in which the two pals try to analyze and outguess Shanté’s every move are the movie’s funniest, with Anderson charmingly dominating each conversation as an overthinking advice-giver (“She offered to get the check? That means you can’t do nothing for her, man, not even pay for dinner!”).
With its action neatly divided into Day 1 through Day 10 vignettes, Two Can Play That Game speeds along with streamlined, sitcomish economy, never spending too much time on developments that can be easily implied (one sequence shows Keith turning up studlike at Shanté’s door and making a little small talk, then cuts to his triumphant, energized walk through the office the next morning). Though the script betrays itself with a when-it-comes-to-love-there-are-no-rules finale, the preceding matchup is at least as engaging as anything on ESPN. CP