Biopics have been a dependable way for filmmakers to deliver a powerful story. There is always a set template attached with the biopics though. It’s either a rags to riches story or a cautionary tale about someone who fell from glory because of their vices. Which is the more interesting one? I feel the latter and yet there is a great warmth about an inspiring story where someone crossed great obstacles and tasted success. The new film The Hill is based on the life of baseball star Rickey Hill. With full access to all the intricate details about his life, this biopic has enough material to craft an inspiring story around his legacy. Rickey was born with a degenerative spine ailment and yet went on to be known as the ‘hardest hitter’ in baseball. He was a prodigy, but his career was cut short by his physical challenges. Overcoming obstacles and attaining glory are some of the features of sports biopics. Here, Rickey’s battles are more related to his faith than anything else.
Born in Texas, Rickey could only walk with his leg braces on. His father, James, a pastor, was a man with such devotion to God that he was willing to put his family through misery rather than compromise his sermon in church to appease his flock. They had to move from place to place because of this. Rickey, meanwhile, only had two real interests: the Bible and baseball! It’s not hard to guess which road James wanted him to take. There is the first major conflict in the film. Father-son tropes usually make for intriguing plotlines, and the same is the case here. Dennis Quaid as James Hill is perfect in the role of a Southern authoritarian father from the 1950s. The adult Rickey Hill, played by Colin Ford, goes against his father’s wishes to pursue his dream. There is a great warmth in everyone’s performances, but it borders on being too simplistic. The plot has a paint-by-numbers quality. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s all too tiring. It just means that the story is not given a chance to venture into any unexpected territory. The makers had a great story with a lot of heart. They cast great actors, and voila, the film was ready to be made. Familiarity with this genre would be someone’s biggest enemy to enjoying this film. The movie is well made, but the beats are so well known, and the film does very little to distinguish itself from other biopic templates to stand out.
Dennis Quaid shines in the role. He ages badly in the movie, but I didn’t find a single moment where he wasn’t listening or wasn’t present. He plays the pastor with bottled vigor. The constant test of faith and what it does to him over time are there in his eyes. His love for his family is portrayed in a manner that really brings out the spirit of a Christian authoritarian father. The young Rickey Hill is played by Jesse Berry, who has a never-say-never attitude, which lends very nicely to the character. The adult Rickey is where the issues lie. Colin tries hard to bring an unparalleled passion to playing baseball, but neither the editing nor the direction help him in his performance. He just becomes ‘the lead’ of the film. When that happens, the rough edges have to be smoothed out, as they had to be done in this film as well.
The latter part of the movie is where the film really started to lose momentum. Every piece of information had to be given through dialogue. That’s a clear indication that the characters were not as nicely set up for the third act as the makers wanted. They lost their flavor and became a mouthpiece for explaining the plot. Apart from Quaid and Colin, all the rest of the characters have very little to do. There are moments where each one of them gets to be the ‘scene-stealer’ but that seems just too convenient. There was no real attempt to have everybody be an important part of every scene. The script stuck to a tested and verified template, which is why the performances suffered.
There is a romantic scene, then there is a poignant father-son scene, and then the wife gets to have her say. Everything is like clockwork. As I said, if there is little to no familiarity with the genre, then the movie will not distract you from the story with its checklist-type progression of scenes. It isn’t that the movie didn’t have scope to be a little off the charts somewhere. There was a moment with Dennis Quaid where the character’s fate, as being the typical good or bad parent, was to be decided. I really thought he was going to be pinned down as the ‘villain’ of the story, and the scene moved towards making him into one. But at the very last moment, it backed out. The film has no villains, even though you might think that the baseball scout Red Murff, played by Scott Glenn, is. The villain is Rickey’s body in a way, which gets beaten up and has to be conquered by his mind ultimately, ensuring he gets to live his dream.
Jeff Celentano’s The Hill brings the story of legendary Rickey Hill to screen and gives it a well-rounded shape with no real twists and turns. It seems there is an apprehension to show a negative aspect of Rickey’s life that he had to overcome. It was always supposed to be his deteriorating body. The movie was really about faith. Rickey’s internal battle initially was to make a choice between God and baseball, and he had to make his father understand that he had found God in baseball. The swing of the bat brought him closer to the spirit he believed in. This test of faith was a key ingredient in giving the film a sincere quality. The narrative style and pacing may have tried to dilute this aspect, but the performances, especially by Dennis Quaid, really bring this quality to every scene, right through to the end. Watch it if you are in the mood to see an inspiring story whose beats might feel quite familiar. If you get immersed in it and are not taken out of the film by the dialogue in the third act, you might forget everything else and just marvel over the unbreakable human spirit, which should always be cinema’s goal.