The Bad News Bears

Dir: Michael Ritchie, 1976. Starring: Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal, Jackie Earle Haley, Vic Morrow. Children's.
The Bad News Bears

I have not seen the remakes of the original The Bad News Bears and its bawdy, sports film cousin, The Longest Yard. And though it stars Billy Bob Thornton, one of my favorite actors of his generation, I just have no interest in it. Knowing what they can and cannot get away with today, I assume the remake pales in comparison. One film, the remake, is a scheme to make money off a brand name, while the original version was created by one of the more underrated, personal filmmakers of the 1970s, Michael Ritchie.

Coming off of the charming teen beauty-pageant comedy Smile (a kinda "Altmany" gem, almost Nashville-light, in need of being rediscovered) and the biting political satire The Candidate, director Ritchie made one of the greatest sports comedies of all time and frankly one of my favorite movies of all time. Though the two horrid sequels, The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training and the even worse, much worse The Bad News Bears Go To Japan may have helped to bring down its reputation, it’s actually much better than you may remember or may have heard. If you’re not a prude about the language it’s a perfect film to introduce to a teenager who’s into baseball or just admires adolescent rebellion and mayhem.

In an Oscar worthy performance, at his most WC Fields, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a run down, drunken ex-ball player now working as pool cleaner. He’s hired on the sly by a shifty politician to manage his son’s unwanted little league team that recently won the right to legally play in an outrageously competitive kiddie-baseball league. At first Buttermaker’s just an inebriated lout, a joke. But he comes to want to see his terrible team of mostly talentless, ethnic and social misfits win and stick it to the suburban snobs and aggressive uber-jocks coaching the other teams. Vic Morrow, in maybe his most memorable theatrical role (other then his teen juvi in Blackboard Jungle), perfectly captures the testosterone-fueled rival sports-dad overly pushing his son too hard (of course, tragically, some years later he would be murdered, beheaded to be exact, by the on-set stunt of the lazy production standards of Twilight Zone: The Movie).

As Buttermaker finds his own self-worth, he tries to help the team find their pride by winning. He brings in a couple of ringers to help the team succeed…First the thirteen year-old girl he taught to pitch years earlier when he dated her mother, played by the plucky Tatum O’Neal (coming off her Oscar win for Paper Moon and soon to follow it up with the lost teen classic Little Darlings, still not available on DVD here in the US). She helps to recruit the best athlete in the area, but the most dangerous, the cigarette smoking, motorcycle driving, sunglasses wearing Kelly Leak, well played by Jackie Earle Haley, who was also memorable as the creepy kid in Day Of The Locust and then as a young adult in Breaking Away. His career had vanished as an adult, but he recently had a nice career resurrection in such films as Little Children and Watchmen.

On screen the kids swear, spout racially offensive jokes, smoke, are given beer to drink from Buttermaker, and even lose the big game. All unimaginable in this era of Mighty Ducks-like family sports films. The thing is, these kids are real. Not corporately designed robots that fit nicely in home video packaging. Like the original Rocky (another great film possibly marginalized by some of its questionable sequels) the point isn’t about winning. It’s actually about something much more important and maybe more entertaining…Becoming a better person, finding self respect, and "how you play the game," etc.

Note for Hollywood Producer Guy looking to make a buck: from now on only remake bad films. Films that either sucked or could be improved on, not classics. Talk to me, I have lists of bad films you can remake. Here are two you could do: The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training or The Bad News Bears Go To Japan. Maybe you will learn it’s not about winning, but how YOU play the game and all that, blah blah. You may hustle those sports clichés to the public, but when it comes to picking films to remake you don’t actually live by them.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 14, 2010 2:32pm
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