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BAD NEWS BEARS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Billy Bob Thornton, Greg Kinnear, Marcia Gay Harden
Director:  Richard Linklater
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  113 Minutes
Release Date:  December 13, 2005

"Baseball's hard.  You can love it, but believe me, it doesn't always love you back.  It's kinda like dating a German chick."

Film ***

In my review of the original Bad News Bears, I asked who but Walter Matthau could have played Morris Buttermaker.  Now I have my answer.

Casting Billy Bob Thornton to play the boozing, gruff coach was a stroke of genius, and worth remaking the film just to see it.  He built on the foundation laid by Matthau and even took it a step further, turning Buttermaker into a guy who never seems to realize he shouldn't be saying everything he thinks the moment he's thinking it.

In some ways, the new movie takes the concept even further, and in some ways, it pulls back.  We're dealing with a racially mixed group of kids again, but the edge is kind of off that now...the strongest it gets it the tale of an Armenian kid with a difficult last name who wants to impress his father about the wonders of baseball.  But then again, Matthau never took the kids to Hooters to celebrate, nor did he have the cheering section pushing the parameters of PG13.

Thornton also brings a more promiscuous edge to the coach, so much so that there always seems to be someone in his batter's box.  And as it turns out, the mother of one of the players (Harden) is in his on-deck circle.

If you've seen the original, you know what to expect.  The general storyline is faithful, down to the motley group of kids:  Tanner, the little hothead, Engleberg, the chubby catcher, Ahmad, the African American who wears number 25 not in honor of Willie Mays but Mark McGwire, and so on.  And of course, there's the lovely tomboy Amanda with her blazing fastball and the renegade youth Kelly who channels his bad boy energy into little league stardom.

Greg Kinnear takes over as coach of the dreaded Yankees in the role made famous (or infamous) by Vic Morrow.  Though at first he seems a strange choice, it actually serves the story to have such an all-American guy play the manager who takes winning far too seriously.

As before, it's both the story of how a group of misfits turns into a functioning ball club, and how Buttermaker learns that the fun of the game is worth more than all the trophies in the world.  It's a message that's grown more and not less relevant with all of today's stories about how idiot coaches and managers take the game far too seriously.  They're just kids, after all.

It's rarely surprising, but it's constantly funny, with a sharp script that helped bring the story and the characters to loveable life.  Director Richard Linklater, who showed what he could do with talented youths in School of Rock, demonstrates an ability to take kids who have no business being on a diamond and making it work just as well.  They're effectively charming, and young Sammi Kane Kraft, who plays Amanda, is not only a pretty face, but apparently can really throw a 70 MPH fastball at age 12. 

This film might actually parlay into a sequel better than the original did, provided that the kids, Thornton and Linklater all return.  Without them, it would likely be bad news for movie fans.

BONUS TRIVIA:  I've read the ratings board forced Buttermaker to drink non-alcoholic beer around the kids...amusing, because he spikes his beers with harder stuff.

Video ****

This is a superb anamorphic transfer from Paramount.  A good bit of the film actually reminded me of the look of some 70s movies, from the bright sunny outdoors to the slightly saturated colors.  Images are well rendered throughout, and I noticed no undue grain or artifacting.

Audio ***

A good 5.1 mix, but not overly demanding.  The games sound great, and so does the music, but not a lot is required of the back stage otherwise.  Dynamic range is fairly good, and the all important dialogue comes through loud and clear.

Features ***1/2

My favorite extra was the video baseball cards...you pick each one, and the cast member introduces him or herself, before the card flips and gives you their bio.  There's also a solid commentary from Richard Linklater and the screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, featurettes on the making-of, casting and training of the actors, a few outtakes (sorry, Billy Bob doesn't do his Sling Blade this time around), deleted scenes, and the trailer.

Summary:

The Bad News Bears are back, and that's good tidings for fans of the original classic comedy.  Billy Bob Thornton is perfect suited for the job, and the cast of kids meet him swing for swing in the laugh department.

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