Connor O'Neill (Keanu Reeves) is thousands of dollars in debt to several bookies who mean to break various parts of his body unless he pays them off. The only chance he has to raise cash is to manage a team of poor black kids from projects that define the term "urban decay." This job is a charity gesture on the part of a prosperous brokerage to help the disadvantaged, and the kids need all the help they can get, They are so well tuned to the sound of gunfire, they can identify the caliber of a bullet fired a block away.

What is striking about Brian Robbins' forceful direction of Hardball is its unwillingness to compromise (along with his handling of the baseball sequences, which are invariably well choreographed). Connor, as depicted in John Gatins' absorbing script, is capable of downright meanness. While his team, The Kekambas, are lovable kids in the nine-to-12 age range, they swear like sailors and seem almost resigned to betrayal.

Even after several games, Connor and his gambling buddy Ticky (a compelling John Hawkes) are still looking for the next big bet. But when that big killing does come, it proves too much of an emotional price, and Connor kicks the habit. He uses part of his winnings to take the Kekambas to watch the Chicago Cubs. The sight of his team, which has never seen professionals play, staring at the game with wide open eyes and broad smiles is the high point of Hardball. The unbridled joy is momentary, however, for shortly afterwards the most innocent member of the Kekambas is pointlessly murdered, paving the way for a poignant, if still triumphant, ending.

--Bruce Feld