From “Raging Bull” to “Rudy,” the sports biopic has long been a film industry staple. Eyeing a long line of commercial hits, “The Hill” attempts to reverse-engineer the process, scraping together exceedingly overused truisms to concoct a hackneyed imitation.
The film recounts the true story of disabled baseball player Rickey Hill (Colin Ford) and his remarkable path to the majors. Raised in a stone-broke family supported by his pastor father, James Hill (Dennis Quaid), the devout nine year old expresses his love for baseball any way he can, from hitting stones with a stick to peeking at TVs in bars, all while wearing homemade leg braces.
Rickey’s degenerative spinal disease, however, is merely a vehicle for drama, with the primary conflict lying in his pious father’s opposition to Rickey playing baseball. James’ violent outbursts and shame toward his son’s disability hint at the potential for a textured, multi-layered story, with the first half of the film taking on James’s subjectivity.
Unfortunately, in the movie’s two-decade-long production process, the writers and director Jeff Celentano lose sight of James’ character arc, unsure of whether to sincerely examine the trauma inflicted on his kids or glorify his abusive behavior. Inappropriate music cues celebrate his violence, and one-dimensional antagonists are shoehorned in to cement him as the lesser evil. Not even a superhuman performance from Quaid can create enough sympathy for James. Given the film’s target audience and faith-entrenched messaging, these inconsistencies read as an executive realizing that an abusive pastor might not be marketable in a movie meant to be inspirational.
One timeskip later, and the perspective switches back to Rickey, now in his final year of high school. James’s bitter struggle with violence is forgotten as quickly as the years flying by, and all the conventional sports movie tropes unfold. On his road to the majors, Rickey is pushed and pulled along an hour’s worth of predictable plot points. Every time he seems to lose hope, a blank check falls out of the sky or a loved one dies to set him straight. Even more unbelievable is that Rickey manages to be the same static character by the end of the movie, not one life lesson smarter.
Like much of modern cinema, “The Hill” packages a platitude or two for its audience to take home in a thematic gift wrap. Never give up. Believe in yourself. Or God. Nothing terribly profound. Yet while blockbusters such as “Top Gun: Maverick” can use this tool to create the decade’s best propaganda pieces, Rickey’s tale produces no such effect.
What makes this “incredible true story” even less credible is its shallow, manufactured characters. Gracie, the love interest, is no more than a dangling pair of keys, and Quinn just a schoolyard bully with a room-temperature I.Q. (And no, we’re not talking Kelvin.) The writers pitch Rickey meatball after meatball by inserting caricatured opponents for him to systematically dismantle. Only the astute MLB scout Red Murff has an air of formidability, thanks only to Scott Glenn’s understated performance.
As for the other actors, it’s hard to fault them for embodying such banal characters, seeing the material they’re given. “The Hill”’s overcommercialized script attempts to jam as many trailer-ready one-liners as possible into each scene. The hefty and preachy lines become quite conspicuous, especially in an era of naturalistic cinema. Still, all six actors playing the Hill children try to make the most of it, resulting in sibling dynamics that feel endearingly camp at best and downright uncomfortable at worst.
Much of the production seems strapped for cash as well, giving the film the appearance of an elevated Disney Channel movie — rather surprising, considering the numerous jarring Coca-Cola product placements that break any remaining immersion.
With such rich source material, “The Hill” could have explored stigmas toward disabilities or repressed emotions in religious households. Instead, it chose to capitalize elsewhere, exploring how wide its pockets could stretch.