3 stars (out of four)
"Bad News Bears," with Billy Bob Thornton as the booze-guzzling coach whose youth baseball team goes from ragtag to riches, is one movie remake that doesn't need a defense attorney.
If you were ever a kid who played baseballand even if you only watched ityou probably have a soft spot for 1976's "The Bad News Bears," in which Walter Matthau perfectly played a salty old coach with a team of foul-mouthed kiddie misfits. And though you may be rightly worried about any Hollywood retreads, Richard Linklater's good new "Bears" doesn't muff the assignment. The movie takes director Michael Ritchie and writer Bill Lancaster's original subversive '70s classic and updates the whole shebang to modern times with relative ease and lots of laughs.
Like the original, this "Bad News Bears" centers on Morris Buttermaker (Thornton), its irascible, sarcastic, hard-drinking coach. In this version, he's hired by fervent team mother and attorney Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden). Buttermakerwho spends his days as a lackadaisical pest-control exterminator (Matthau was a pool cleaner) and his nights hitting bars and trying to parlay his inning-long major league pitching career into quick pickupsis charged with firing up the Bears, a team so terrible the league is considering rescinding their franchise.
Why? Well, one Bear, Matthew Hooper (Troy Gentile) is playing in a wheelchair. The rest simply can't play wellor at all. Their woefully malfunctioning ranks, laced with names and characters right out of the '76 roster, include the feisty Agilar brothers, Miguel and Jose (Carlos and Emmanuel Estrada), rotund catcher Mike Engelberg (Brandon Craggs), diminutive pepperpot brawler Tanner Boyle (played by Timmy Deters, almost a dead ringer for the original Tanner, Chris Barnes) and Toby Whitewood (Ridge Canipe), who, natch, is attorney Liz's son.
All have suspect skills and most have bad mouths. But worms can turn. After suffering through some slaughtersplus smug ridicule from the defending league champion Yankees and their clean-cut, nasty phony of a coach, Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), the Bears and Buttermaker get down to business, with a new attitude and two new recruits: fireballing 12-year old pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer (newcomer Sammi Kane Kraft in the Tatum O'Neal role) and home-run blaster Kelly Leak (Jeffrey Davis).
Soon they're tearing up the league, on track for the championship clash with the Yankees we all expect. But if that sounds like the same comic-inspirational sports movie people have kept making since the first "Bad News Bears"most recently the awful basketball "Bad News" knockoff "Rebound"remember that this story plays it fast, loose and subversive to the end.
I wouldn't say that the new "Bears" is better than the old one, nor even that I'm completely sure "Bears" needed remaking. But at least it's a good movie, not the disgraceful, witlessly modernized rip-off we have grown to expect. This is no "Longest Yard" and certainly no "Rebound." Director-producer Richard Linklater, a maverick with heart ("School of Rock"), doesn't drop the ball.
The first "Bad News Bears" hailed from an era when big studio releases were more human and adventurous and less hog-tied by technology and marketing than nowand this movie tries to relive the '70s (even if it does include some shameless product placement for Hooters). The new film also has the benefit of Thornton, who zips himself right into Matthau's role of shaggy, congenitally cynical Buttermaker. Thornton's laid-back zingers and unbuttoned sass may not match Matthau (nobody could), but his sawed-off, scowling, smart-aleck persona and anti-pretty boy movie star looks make him spot-on for this part now.
Kinnear puts a much different spin on his role than the late Vic Morrow brought to Roy Bullock's surly counterpart, Roy Turner. Harden does the same with her version of Ben Piazza's 1976 Councilman Whitewood. But they're both smart updates, Harden reflecting the post-feminist tide and Kinnear affirming our often-justified suspicions about homily-spouting, superficially all-American bullies like Bullock.
Though some of the new child actors initially seem to pale next to their predecessorsexcept Detters, who seems to channel Barnes I'm not sure that's fair. Tatum O'Neal was an Oscar-winner in 1976, but Sammi Kane Kraft has something O'Neal didn't: a 70 m.p.h. fastball. She and Davis were picked for baseball skills as well as acting and her cannon arm and his unfaked slugging add a lot to the movie's cracked verismo.
Linklater shows a lot of respect for Ritchie's picture, and so do writers Glenn Ficcara and John Requa (both of Thornton's "Bad Santa"). They've even included the name of the original writer, the late Bill Lancaster, in their credits (twice)only fitting since they've kept so much structure and dialogue. Lancaster was Burt Lancaster's son, and though his career was brief, and he got tied up in one lousy "Bad News Bears" sequel, this movie and John Carpenter's "The Thing" were his chances to shine.
If Matthau, Ritchie, Lancaster and the 1976 kids made something lastingly human, raffish and funny out of the first "Bad News Bears"a comic hymn to athletes, team play and rebelliousnessthis remake keeps the string alive. Linklater, one of the most humanly perceptive and anti-cliche of active American filmmakers, always charges up the human element in his films, including his non-stereotype teen comedy "Dazed and Confused" and his great romances "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset."
Unlike Ritchie, he's not a specialist in sports movies, but he has the kind of attitude that conveys the heart of sports: an insider's delight in the techniques and absurd miscues and miracles of the game. The public didn't go for "Cinderella Man," a real-life sports bio with depth and feeling. But maybe they'll like this saucy, jokey spree: wise-acre and kick-butt on top and warm underneath, like Buttermaker. The new "Bad News Bears" may not make you cheer, but it should provide laughs and a good time. Isn't that what some movies are all about?
'Bad News Bears'
Directed by Richard Linklater; written by Bill Lancaster, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, based on the film written by Lancaster; photographed by Rogier Stoffers; edited by Sandra Adair; production designed by Bruce Curtis; music by Edward Shearmur; music supervised by Randall Poster; produced by J. Geyer Kosinski, Richard Linklater. A Paramount Pictures release of a Media Talent Group production in association with Detour Filmproduction; opens Friday. Running time: 1:53. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for rude behavior, language throughout, some sexuality and thematic elements).
Morris Buttermaker - Billy Bob Thornton
Roy Bullock - Greg Kinnear
Liz Whitewood - Marcia Gay Harden
Amanda Whurlitzer - Sammi Kane Kraft
Toby Whitewood - Ridge Canipe
Mike Engelberg - Brandon Craggs
Kelly Leak - Jeffrey Davis
Tanner Boyle - Timmy Deters