Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a former minor-league baseball player and an alcoholic who currently cleans swimming pools, is recruited by a city councilman, Bob Whitewood (Ben Piazza), who has filed a lawsuit against a Southern California Little League that has excluded the least athletically skilled kids from playing – one of them being his son. Following a settlement, the league agrees to add a new team for the rejects, the Bears.
Right from the get-go the team, sponsored by Chico’s Bail Bonds, are pariahs within the league, giving up a staggering 26 runs in just the first half inning of their opening game. Realizing the team has a snowball’s chance in hell at winning a game, let alone a league championship, Buttermaker recruits the sharp-tongued pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O’Neal), the 11-year-old daughter of one of Buttermaker’s ex-girlfriends, and Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a smoking, Harley-riding troublemaker many of the players believe to be the best athlete in the area.
Long before Gordon Bombay and his team of hockey stick-wielding misfits took the rink in the Mighty Ducks movies, Walter Matthau and his motley crew of foul-mouthed ball players took the field in The Bad News Bears. The little league flick became a big enough hit to spawn two terrible sequels, a TV series and an awfully forgettable remake starring Billy Bob Thornton. But its influence spread even beyond its own brand name. Pretty much every following movie with a cranky coach and a ragtag team of bratty kids owes a little debt of gratitude to “Boilermaker” and those prepubescent, athletically-challeneged smart-asses.
The Bad News Bears is a joyous reminder of when movies, specifically comedies, weren’t so worried about offending the stick up the ass crowd. For all the talk the unnecessary, carbon-copied remake gets for being “oh-so edgier” than the original, it’s actually in some ways tamer, succumbing to the dreaded disease of political correctness that can ruin remakes (How in the hell do you do a Honeymooners remake without “To the moon, Alice!” or “One of these days, Alice… Pow! Right in the kisser!”?!!!). Definitely not the case here.
“What do you expect? All we got on this team are a buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin’ moron!”
“Tanner, I think you need to be reminded from time to time that you are one of the few people on this team who is not a Jew, spic, nigger, pansy or booger-eating moron. So you’d better cool it or we may be disposed to beat the crap out of you.”
Similar to The Sandlot, director Michael Ritchie and writer Bill Lancaster (horror fans will recognize his name as he’d go on to write the vastly different sci-fi/horror remake The Thing for John Carpenter) let the kids be kids, though the Sandlot kids, while they’re certainly no angels, aren’t as crude as the Bears gang (keep in mind, this film came prior to the PG-13 rating, so there’s no way, if released today, it’d still get the PG rating it received). They act, talk, bicker, whine, bully, and curse like the little shits we expect them to be. Yes, each one of them is an obvious character trope (the fat kid, shy kid, troublemaker, potty-mouthed runt, black kid, foreign kid, nerdy kid, etc.); we’ve seen that formula used over and over again. Despite the familiar types, Ritchie presents the kids in an easily relatable, down-to-earth, unsentimental manner that never feels forced or phony.
It’s okay, moms and dads of today. The Ritalin-popping, overly-sensitive excuses for bullying you brought into this world can hang out with these gloriously un-PC kids and – gasp – won’t be scarred by what they see and hear.
The performances from the kids are quite good, and that is one of the strongest aspects here that distinguishes itself from the 2005 version. They’re not props for the Walter Matthau show to play off of; both Matthau and the kids complement one another and elevate each other’s performances. Tatum O’Neal, whose promising career would unfortunately never get any better following this film, brings a good deal of tough peppiness to Amanda Whurlitzer and shares a genuinely sweet rapport with Matthau. Jackie Earle Haley, who would disappear into obscurity come the ’80s before earning an Oscar-nominated career resurgence with 2006’s Little Children, also turns in solid work as the naturally athletic delinquent who we soon come to realize simply wants to fit in with the team just as much as the other players. Chris Barnes scores a good portion of the film’s laughs as Tanner Boyle, the hot-tempered potty mouth with a Napoleon complex.
Still, even though this is just as much about the kids as it is the boozy coach, Walter Matthau’s marvelously understated performance shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s a shame that people from my generation growing up only know Matthau as the cranky old bastard from Dennis the Menace and those dopey Grumpy Old Men type films that littered up the remainder of his career before his passing in 2000 ’cause his award-winning (one Oscar win out of three nominations) decades-long career proved to be much more versatile than his last few handful of films would suggest. No doubt, the man can play cynical curmudgeon better than anyone else and it shows in spades here. However, he was also just as great at drama as he was at comedy, and we get just enough moments, such as an angry outburst at Amanda or when he realizes his over-competitiveness has become a detriment to the team, that show the tremendous range he had as an actor.
Of course, there is a message ’cause children movies and sports movies put together equals a message about the ultra-competitive nature of little league games. Both my sister and I have played little league back when we were kids (I was a combination of Lupus’s skills and Boyle’s temperament), and I can say for certain that the stories you have heard of parents charging the field to argue with the ump or threatening to ground their kid for letting a ball slip by them are no tall tales. Not that I’m advocating 10th place ribbons or trophies for participation or anything. You’re still reading the thoughts of one who picked fights and argued calls constantly on the basketball court back in high school (how I went my entire high school years without a single ejection or technical foul, I’ll never know… nor will my teammates). That said, these are still kids. They’re not professional athletes; they’re not even high school athletes. They’re just kids, and aiming to teach youngsters – or I should say their over-zealous parents – that scholarships won’t get flushed down the drain, nor will the world end, over a lost little league game is admirable, and doing so doesn’t cheapen the value of winning either (although I still believe participation trophies do and as the Bears say to the Yankees, you can shove ’em up your ass).
It’s as my high school coach said: “Winning isn’t everything; wanting to is.”
Thankfully, Ritchie and Lancaster don’t shove the message down viewers’ throats. Message or not, it’s still a comedy, not an after-school special, and characters aren’t treated like black and white caricatures just to prove a point. Sure, for the sake of the story, Vic Morrow’s Coach Roy Turner is the opposing team “villain”, but unlike Greg Kinnear’s drill sergeant cartoon version, he’s given a touch of humanity. At the end of the day, he too is just another parent caught up in the competition of his kid’s game. Likewise, Ben Piazza’s “Let them play!!” councilman isn’t whitewashed into a saint, and kinda comes off as an impatient, sue-happy bureaucrat.
Still standing as the godfather of children’s sports films, The Bad News Bears is gleefully crude and enlivened by both Walter Matthau and an engaging group of endearingly bratty kids worth rooting for, whether or not they can hit or catch or throw a ball to save their lives. Never mean-spirited, even the most cynical of moments are countered with a healthy-sized shot of heart and humor, a balance of “foul” and “fair” you could say that adds up to one of the best sports comedies ever made.