Faithfully retelling the 1976 comedy about a team of misfits and their slovenly, beer-swilling coach, the new “Bad News Bears” has adopted a somewhat raunchier tone but delivers enough laughs to go the distance. Billy Bob Thornton hews toward “Bad Santa” territory as he neatly slides into Walter Matthau’s shoes, while the rest of the cast, alas, doesn’t measure up. Too crude for younger kids, pic’s sweet spot should be among teens and young adults who weren’t even born when the first tykes-behaving-badly exercise took the field.
Director Richard Linklater struggles a bit with pacing (pic is 10 minutes longer than its predecessor and feels it), but Thornton’s woozy delivery and the engaging subject matter mostly hold up. Working from a script credited to original scribe, the late Bill Lancaster, and “Bad Santa” alums Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the changes prove largely cosmetic, ranging from finding a new if equally inappropriate team sponsor (though its predecessor is briefly shown) to altering the protagonist’s day job from pool cleaner to pest control man.
Thornton plays Morris Buttermaker, a blink-and-you-missed-him big league pitcher who grudgingly agrees to coach a group of thrown-together kids in a hyper-competitive baseball league. Slightly sweetened to augment the political incorrectness, the roster now includes a lad in a wheelchair (Troy Gentile) as well as a nerd (Prem Lahiri) who doesn’t know much about baseball but proves a whiz with batting percentages.
Greg Kinnear, meanwhile, is more smarmy than sinister (Vic Morrow, you are missed) as the overbearing coach of the league’s perennial champs, reflecting just how prescient the original’s underlying theme about over-involved parents was.
Brought in this time by a working single mom (Marcia Gay Harden), Buttermaker slowly begins to embrace the challenge of turning the Bears into winners. The turnaround stems from recruiting the fireballing 12-year-old girl (Sammi Kane Kraft) he taught to throw a mean slider while dating her mother and taking in a rebel (Jeffrey Davies) whose hobbies are upgraded from arcades to skateboarding.
There’s no nice way to say this, but the quality of the kid performers is at best uneven and drags the pic down in the middle innings. A notable exception would be Timmy Deters as the diminutive and ever-combative Tanner, who bears such an uncanny resemblance to the character in the previous “Bears” one might suspect human cloning is involved.
Still, it’s Thornton’s show, and he drolly rattles off plenty of incongruously funny lines, from suggesting that baseball is “like dating a German chick” to complaining he’s been saddled with coaching “bronze medalists in the Special Olympics.” Pic also makes good use of its San Fernando Valley locations, which in a not-so-subtle bit of product placement have been updated to include post-game festivities at Hooters.
At a time when every third summer movie seems to be a remake, “Bad News Bears” is one of those rare concepts actually suited to an encore, since the ideas of outcast kids and parents living vicariously through their children remain current enough to account for much of the Bravo channel’s primetime lineup. And though remakes are seldom hailed as good news creatively, they can at least be good company.