Film Review: The Hill
Director: Jeff Celentano
Vitamin A Films and Rescue Dog Productions
In Theaters: 08.25
Some films are comparable to an amusement park ride, some to a journey. In describing The Hill, the new faith-based sports drama, I’m going with the comparison of “kidney stone.” It’s excruciating, and there’s really nothing to do but bite down, wait it out and hope you never get another one or watch another film like it.
The Hill is “based on the true story” of Rickey Hill (Jesse Berry, Good Trouble), a Texas boy who wears leg braces due to a degenerative spinal disease yet refuses to let go of the dream that he will one day play major league baseball. Although Rickey practices batting with astonishing skill, his overprotective father, Pastor Hill (Dennis Quaid, The Rookie) will have none of it. Pastor Hill believes that Rickey has a higher calling to preach the spoken word. “Where your earthly legs have failed you, God’s gonna give you wings,” he tells Rickey, meanwhile everyone else tells Rickey that he has a gift. When Rickey grows into a young man, now played by Colin Ford (Daybreak, Walker) he’s a full-fledged phenomenon and wins the chance to try out for big league scout Red Murff (Scott Glenn, The Right Stuff, Silverado). Since Rickey’s spinal condition is still a concern, his family is divided between two extremes: those who want to see Rickey play at all costs, even if it leaves him unable to walk, and the Pastor, who refuses to support his son’s dream.
Celentano (Puppet Master II, American Ninja 2, Demonic Toys) is determined to make an American sports movie that is mentioned in the same breath as the titans of the genre, and he approaches every scene as if possessed by the spirit of Norman Rockwell. The solemn, inspirational and thoroughly unconvincing plot never lets up, and the score by Geoff Zannelli (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) seems to be made up only of two themes: one that is meant to be earnestly inspiring and a boldly different one that aims instead to be inspiringly earnest. Still, all of those elements are more successful than the screenplay by Angelo Pizzo (Hoosiers, Rudy) and Scott Marshall Smith (Men of Honor). The relentless onslaught of cornball dialogue (“Regret … it’s an ache in her bones. It don’t ever stop,” and, “I ain’t here to waste my time with guys who play baseball. We’re lookin’ fer baseball players,” being just the tip of the iceberg) is beyond painful.
One of the major problems with The Hill is that it chickens out every time it gets too close to portraying Pastor Hill in a truly negative light. Whether this is motivated by fear that it hurts the film’s cred as a faith-based, feel good movie, or whether Hill himself didn’t want to do so, we constantly have the character stepping up to the plate toward being oppressively domineering and even abusive—only to back away. This waters down the central conflict to the point where there’s barely even a story.
Quaid gives a committed performance, yet the 69-year-old actor spent the first hour of the film playing a man in his forties with only the shoe polish in his hair to support the preposterous casting. Ford is terrible, alternating between too wooden and too over-the-top, though Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard) steps up as the feisty, family matriarch Gram. The white-haired, frail yet tenacious old woman has tremendous spirit, perhaps because, at 75, she’s only six years older than her son in law, which speaks volumes about casting in Hollywood.
I’ll freely admit that I’m not in the target audience for The Hill, and yet I’ve been pulled in by many a formula sports movie if it’s done with a modicum of honesty. The human drama here is so bland that it’s hard to care and far too corny to be taken seriously. While The Hill desperately wants to be seen as a heavy hitter, it should be relegated to the bench. –Patrick Gibbs