Bad News Bears, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Bad News Bears may be the most entertaining remake of the year (thus far), but that's less a statement of praise than it is a condemnation of this class of movies. With a script co-credited to Bill Lancaster, who penned the original 1976 screenplay, Bad News Bears is true to its source, rarely diverging from the earlier film's storyline, and occasionally re-creating entire scenes. There is, however, a difference in tone. The '70s edition of the film was more family friendly than Richard Linklater's one. Gleefully profane and un-PC, Bad News Bears earns its PG-13 rating, and may cause more conservative parents to shy away from bringing younger children to screenings.

Is there a reason to see a faithful remake, rather than simply rent the original? In this case, the affirmative is supplied by Billy Bob Thornton. Rather than aping grumpy-but-loveable Walter Matthau, Thornton makes this role his own. He plays it like his Bad Santa character (albeit run through a PG-13 filter). Thornton doesn't want Morris Buttermaker to be cute or cuddly. He wants him to be brash, nasty, and crude - and he succeeds in that aim. We end up liking Buttermaker anyway, much as we eventually come to Thornton's boozy, bawdy Bad Santa. Thornton is Bad News Bears' selling point and lone acting standout. (The absence of someone to rival Tatum O'Neal is noticeable.)

The Bad News Bears was the granddaddy of kids' sports movies. It has countless descendants, each safer and more generic than its predecessors. With the remake, Linklater returns the edge to the kids. Sure, some of the children are misunderstood underachievers who reach their potential, but others are unrepentant misfits or incompetents who never improve. That is - and has always been - part of the movie's charm. The Bears don't metamorphose overnight from a bunch of losers into a fantasy-tinged winner. And Buttermaker is not a Mr. Miyazaki with a cure for all of life's ills. (But he has better one-liners.)

Buttermaker is an ex-minor leaguer who, after falling on hard times, has decided to coach the little league Bears (there's a check involved). His players, while not as misanthropic as their manager, are a motley crew. They include a fat guy, a boy in a wheelchair, a black kid who idolizes Mark McGwire, a girl pitcher, and a juvenile delinquent home run hitter. After three consecutive losses and one tie, the Bears turn their season around and end up in the championship game battling the unbeatable Yankees, who are coached by the smug Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), the poster child for parents who overvalue winning.

Buttermaker is the kind of guy no parent would want as a child's role model. He spikes his non-alcoholic beer, gets a strip club to sponsor the baseball team, preaches the virtues of lying, and hosts a victory dinner at Hooters (where everyone joins in a lusty rendition of Eric Clapton's "Cocaine"). When the team threatens to rebel, he informs them, "This isn't a democracy. It's a dictatorship. And I'm Hitler." For fun, he takes them to work with him and allows them to help exterminating bugs and rodents. When two engage in an insecticide fight, spraying each other with toxic fluids, he demands that they stop because "that's expensive stuff." During the second half of Bad News Bears, when the sports movie clich├ęs become abundant, there's always Buttermaker to hold our interest.

Greg Kinnear, a solid character actor, does the kind of thing he does best - provide us with a good secondary player. Kinnear is capable of playing a nice guy, but, in this case, he's the villain - a preening, win-obsessed coach who cares more about getting the victory than letting the kids have fun. Marcia Gay Harden is wasted. Her role as a player's mom is so inconsequential that it's easy to forget she's in the movie. Sammi Kraft gets the Tatum O'Neal role and does the best she can with it. Unfortunately, she too often seems like a pale copy. Jeff Davies has the key part of Kelly Leak, but he's not very good, and the character comes across like someone in need of a more detailed subplot.

The soundtrack caught my attention because of its offbeat nature. Instead of relying on the usual mix of a generic sports movie score and current pop songs, Linklater goes a different route. He and composer Ed Shearmur employ a variety of classical numbers, all jazzed up to match the film's tempo. Those who remember the '70s "Hooked on Classics" fad will recognize what this sounds like.

When it comes to the existence of Bad News Bears, "Why?" is the most apropos question. Why do a remake? And why did a respected director like Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, School of Rock) agree to take the helm? Money probably has a lot to do with the answers to both queries. Fortunately, in the process of pursuing a box office winner, Linklater has crafted an entertaining motion picture. Bad News Bears won't make fans forget the original, but it's not so feeble that it disappears into the earlier movie's shadow.

Bad News Bears, The (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1