The Hill

The Hill
The Hill
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Inspired by a true story, The Hill is directed by Jeff Celentano (Breaking Point) and he tries to hit it out of the park with this baseball drama. Creatively, the bases never feel fully loaded here and there’s never a sense that things won’t get resolved. That the film goes into overtime — literally — is another story. Nevertheless, if you can have some patience, at the end of the day, Celentano does right by the real-life tale of an acclaimed baseball player beginning with his 1970s childhood and continuing through young adulthood when further physical injuries and filial strife confronted him.

The movie comes from Briarcliff Entertainment and stars Dennis Quaid, Joelle Carter, country music singer-songwriter Randy Houser, Bonnie Bedelia, Scott Glen, Jesse Berry and Colin Ford as Rickey Hill at various ages. It’s your typical inspirational fare.

The Hill has a lot going for it but there comes a point about 20 minutes in when the déjà vu hits. Haven’t we been here before? Maybe in a streaming series? Maybe in another film? Even another Dennis Quaid film? You wish that sensation away as The Hill moves through its first hour but it’s an unavoidable feeling until the film’s second half which despite being based on a true story somehow holds the same kind of creative rhythm of other stories.

Young Rickey Hill (Jesse Berry from Good Trouble) is moving through childhood in an impoverished small-town Texas setting. Rickey has a knack for hitting a baseball surprising perhaps to some people because he’s riddled with leg braces he has to wear due to degenerative spinal disease. If that’s not enough challenge, his father (Dennis Quaid) is a stern pastor whose constant discouragement to pursue baseball leaves Rickey feeling befuddled if not restless.

The first hour of the movie captures this push-pull dynamic between father and son. Rickey’s mom (Joelle Carter) can’t do all that much to ease the dilemma, and the pressure to become a preacher like his father is omnipresent for Rickey. These scenes could use some editing as they tend to overstay their welcome. In 2023, when audiences are used to stories told beyond traditional linear formats, you wonder if employing more fluidity moving back and forth through time would have helped the overall endeavor.

Quaid seems to be in a rinse-and-repeat role. Or at least in yet another film where he plays a stalwart figure at the forefront of a family dilemma. The story really takes off once Colin Ford enters the picture playing Rickey as a young man. The Walker and Dahmer-Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story star is captivating on screen. He holds that rare on-screen élan, and his acting chops just seem to keep getting better. This is especially evident as Rickey starts heading down the road of becoming that phenom that he was, and like in real life he’s paired with Major League scout Red Murff (Scott Glenn playing Scott Glenn) in the film — Rickey has got to impress Murff if he wants into professional baseball but Murff’s presence splits up the family.

To be certain, Rickey Hill’s story is a tear-jerking, all-around-life epic that touches on some relatable or aspirational themes for audiences: faith, unyielding persistence, honing one’s talents. Throw in some early hardship and intense physical afflictions born from a life of pain, mix it with growing up under the shadow of a loving but stern father — well, it seemed like a surefire winner.

It did. But something went wrong in this telling. For one thing, the movie is bloated; it runs just over two hours long. That’s a lot of time to ask an audience to give to a film that might not need so much of it to tell its story effectively. Ideally, The Hill could have come in at 90 minutes.

According to reports by director Jeff Celentano (Glass Jaw, Breaking Point), he started the project some 15 years ago after being touched by serendipity. His brother was sitting in a hotel lobby when the man next to him turned out to be Rickey Hill. The guy was on his cell phone discussing how plans for a movie about his life had fallen through. Well if that ain’t a “sign” to think about making a movie about someone …

Celentano headed down to Texas and met Michael A. Blubaugh who owned the rights to Hill’s tale and suddenly things were different on this journey toward the screen. Angelo Pizzo became involved as screenwriter; Pizzo was the genius behind 1986′s Hoosiers which David Anspaugh directed — you know the one with Gene Hackman coaching an Indiana high school basketball team in the ’50s? One of the most popular sports movies ever made?

The Hill does not catch what made Hoosiers magic but most of its cast does fine work with what they’re given here. It would have been nice for us as an audience to see the shine go on Hill past childhood. The front half of the film tends to weigh things down. Still, this faith-based offering manages to uplift and be traditionally inspiring in spite of some of its setbacks. Hallelujah for that.

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