Directed by Jeff Celentano from a script by the late Scott Marshall Smith (“Men of Honor”) and Angelo Pizzo (who wrote the classics “Rudy” and “Hoosiers“), “The Hill” retells the true story of Fort Worth, Texas native Rickey Marshall. Like Pizzo’s signature screenplays, this tale is in the spirit of the original “Rocky,” where the hero’s achievements are far more modest than the Hollywood usual but stirring (arguably more so) because the stakes are small and the obstacles relatable. Hill, a Baptist preacher’s son, grew up fantasizing about playing Major League baseball despite a degenerative spinal disease that forced him into leg braces. He also grew up so poor that his family couldn’t afford proper equipment: he taught himself to hit using sticks and stones, with his older brother pitching and coaching. Despite all this, Hill developed into a power hitter, played three months for the Montreal Expos at 19, and made it through four seasons in the minor leagues.
The problem isn’t that this is a faith-based film aimed at a specific market niche (some of the greatest films ever made focus on spirituality). It’s the project’s bland vision. Even legitimate, painful conflicts between characters with equally valid but irreconcilable agendas (such as the hero, who is torn between what he believes to be two destinies, playing ball and following in his preacher dad’s footsteps) feel programmed even though they’re drawn from life. It doesn’t help that the hero and a few other major characters (including his love interest) have two-and-a-half dimensions at best and are so altogether pleasant, even when distressed or angry, that it’s hard to see how anyone could have rational (or even irrational) objections to anything they do, say, or want.
Jesse Berry (of “9-1-1: Lone Star”) plays Rickey as a boy, and Colin Ford (“Under the Dome”) steps in to play the teenage version. The film’s minimal edge comes from Rickey’s relationship with his dad, James (Dennis Quaid). James believes his son’s destiny is to succeed him behind the pulpit, opposes his baseball dreams, and even likens his secret baseball card collection to a gallery of false idols. This is reminiscent of both versions of “The Jazz Singer,” the story of a young man who would rather be a secular musical performer than a cantor, except that in this case, the hero loves preaching the word and is great at it. (“I thought I was going to be the best Baptist preacher,” Hill told Risen magazine. “I was going to be the next Billy Graham.”)