Directed by Brian Robbins, starring Keanu Reeves, Bryan Hearne, Julian Griffith, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Perkins, DeWayne Warren and Diane Lane.

Conor O'Neill (Reeves) owes money. Lots of it. Playing one bookie off against another and digging himself even deeper in the hole with double or quits fiascos, he has to find $12,000 within a month. Hope and stopgap funds however, arrive from a former teenage buddy who offers O'Neill $500 a week - if he'll coach a kids baseball team from the projects.

These days it could be argued that Reeves' career is the work of someone biding their time until 'The Matrix' sequels come out. Yet 'Hardball' could have been so much more. Sure the plot is loaded with every against-all-odds cliché you can think of, but the film has one really great ingredient: the kids. All unknowns, they give performances of such poise and heart that you just wish that Reeves was up to their efforts. It's not that he doesn't try, but he just hasn't got the range to connect with them - and the audience - in a way that their performances deserve.

After the film, you'll be left wondering just how good 'Hardball' might have been with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Edward Norton in the O'Neill role. And you'll also wonder just how those actors would have worked with Diane Lane as the kids' teacher/O'Neill's love interest. Here, she is woefully underused and given that the film is always watchable, you can't figure out why director Robbins didn't allow her a few more scenes with the men in her life.

What Robbins deserves credit for is his refusal to dive into sentimentality in every scene. In 'Hardball' there really are no big victories, just the small ones that manage to change people's lives. The kids are competing for a tin trophy in a waste ground league, but what Robbins shows is how they move from a group of bickering outsiders into a unit. Sure, they win the match they're meant to win, but the scenes which lead up to the victory are completely unexpected and bring a level of poignancy to the film which it never really seemed capable of.

Home runs for all the young actors with Reeves stuck at second base.

Harry Guerin