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Bad News Bears   C

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Bill Lancaster, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Greg Kinnear, Marcia Gay Harden, Sammi Kane Kraft, Jeffrey Davies, Timmy Deters, Brandon Craggs, Ridge Canipe.

Review by Rob Vaux

The ostensible purpose of a remake is to bring something new or different to the material -- to approach it from a fresh perspective or to see it from an alternate set of eyes. In this crucial area, Bad News Bears is a complete failure. While not necessarily a terrible film, the "remixing" of the 1976 classic envisioned by director Richard Linklater feels like watered-down beer.

Certainly, it makes a few changes to the story of a scruffy Little League team and their boozing coach, who turn a misbegotten season into a run at the championship. The first film aimed its satire at the pressures placed on children by their over-competitive parents. The second film does that too, but in a blander and less edgy way. With a swipe at political correctness, the team is now formed in the wake of an anti-discriminatory lawsuit, giving it an updated feeling as well as the ever-so-off-color sight gag of a paraplegic on the team. It also focuses more on the coach and less on the kids, a move that never really pays off. Morris Buttermaker, the alcoholic has-been played so wonderfully by Walter Matthau in the original, is given life here by Billy Bob Thornton in what amounts to a toned-down curtain call for his Bad Santa persona. He has a slightly fleshed-out background to work with, a new career as a pest exterminator, and an ill-conceived romance with the single mom (Marcia Gay Harden) who's paying his salary. These changes add up to little more than idle tweaking; they appear neither new nor invigorating, but settle into a sense of arbitrary transition, shifting things around only because they can.

But the mettle of Bad News Bears comes not in what's added, but in what's taken away. The original film had a streak of meanness, a hard-edged grit that rubbed deliciously beneath its humor. In this version, the grit has been subtly, almost imperceptibly removed. For example, in the first film, Buttermaker uses some big-league dirty tricks to win, teaching his tomboy ringer to throw a Vaseline-aided spitball. He cheats here too (this time by juicing the bats), but now he gets caught, thus preserving whatever nebulous family-friendly message the corporate suits wanted to project. Similar distinctions cloud the entire picture: beer served to the kids becomes nonalcoholic, games are won on hard work rather than ironic flukes, and team shortstop Tanner (played here by Timmy Deters) loses the ominous streak of bigotry that made his predecessor so distinctive.

In the most telling sequence, a confrontation between the opposing team's coach (Greg Kinnear) and his underperforming son (Carter Jenkins) is robbed of the stark brutality that it once held in favor of wishy-washy homogeneity. Kinnear's performance typifies the film's problems: he's decent enough at times, but often teeters precariously towards caricature, and ends scenes as the butt of crude jokes that detract from the win-at-all-costs parental figure he's trying to satirize. Vic Morrow portrayed the same prick far more effortlessly in the original, and brought a sense of cruel verité to the role that the update lacks the nuances to duplicate.

In fairness, Bad News Bears rarely tramples on its source material and occasionally attains a semblance of the same laid-back iconoclasm. Thornton can be amusing and some of the jokes that worked in 1976 still have gas left in them. The film's two legitimate ball players -- pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kane Kraft) and outfielder Kelly Leak (Jeffrey Davies) -- definitely know their way around the diamond, and Linklater is a breezy enough director not to strain things unduly. But the sad fact is that all of it has been done before, and with more spirit and charm. The things this Bad News Bears brings to the table simply don't make up the distance between it and its predecessor. Why run the bases again when the first trip around was so much more satisfying?

Review published 07.21.2005.

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