Sep 19, 2001 at 12:00 am

Hardballand Rock Star started off as the kind of thrilling, truth-is-more-compelling-than-fiction stories that get film executives excited, and both got the full Hollywood treatment. This means that whatever made them unique in the first place has been lost, replaced by too familiar tales of white men on that well-traversed road to redemption.

In Hardball, Conor O’Neill (Keanu Reeves) is a Chicago ticket scalper and reckless gambler who’s deep in debt to two unforgiving bookies. After placing another impossible bet to dig himself out, he takes a paycheck to do a volunteer job: coaching an inner-city Little League baseball team.

Daniel Coyle’s nonfiction book, Hardball: A Season in the Projects, chronicles his experiences as a baseball coach in Cabrini-Green, yet screenwriter John Gatins (Summer Catch) creates the kids onscreen not as individuals, but a means to Conor’s end. In one amazingly shameless scene, O’Neill speaks at the funeral of one of his players (ghetto life via Hollywood invariably includes senseless death and a car burning unattended) to say how that boy’s determination made him a better man.

It’s when director Brian Robbins (Varsity Blues, Ready to Rumble) actually focuses on the young black players — both on and off the baseball diamond — that the film comes to life. They adapt to their environment in myriad ways, like the mild-mannered Miles (A. Delon Ellis Jr.), whose pitching style owes much to a Notorious B.I.G. song whose content he’s too young to fully comprehend, or the charismatic G-Baby (DeWayne Warren), the youngest player with the biggest mouth and most dead-on observations.

When Hardball shows these kids coming together by embracing the best aspects of team sports, it soars. No matter how good Reeves or his adult compatriots (compassionate Diane Lane or scene-stealing John Hawkes) may be, they’re a distraction from the real story.

The impetus for Rock Star came from a newspaper story about Tim “Ripper” Owens, a virtual unknown who became the new singer for metal stalwarts Judas Priest in 1993. In this revamped version written by John Stockwell (Crazy/Beautiful) — and made without the cooperation of the band that inspired it — fictitious heavy-metal gods Steel Dragon part ways with their original singer and hire Chris Cole (Mark Wahlberg), who fronts Pittsburgh “tribute” band Blood Pollution. Chris has so obsessively internalized the Dragons’ music that he’s submerged his own creative expression, but as his girlfriend Emily (Jennifer Aniston) keeps telling him, he has talent to burn. And burn he does.

Chris is dubbed Izzy and goes on tour with Steel Dragon, a band that indulges in all the theatricality of 1985 metallurgy onstage, and all the sex and stimulants they can find when off. Director Stephen Herek (Mr. Holland’s Opus) is more interested in the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle than the music itself. So Rock Star comes off like Almost Famous made by someone who spent adolescence with his face pressed to the glass, imagining the decadence his rock idols lived out behind the music.

Herek tries to compensate for a heavy-handed and predictable scenario by populating the film with real musicians, and they’re convincing foils for the former Marky Mark, who again plays an innocent corrupted by his own ambitions. In a great moment of life meeting art, Jason Bonham, as Steel Dragon’s drummer, gets his blood refreshed while encouraging the torn “Chrizzy” to indulge in everything around him because he can.

What could really use that transfusion are Hardball and Rock Star. The innocuous formula coursing through their veins is embalming fluid.

Visit the official Hardball Web site at www.hardballmovie.com.

E-mail Serena Donadoni at [email protected].