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A washed-up baseball player is hired to coach a team of unruly children. Comedy-drama starring Walter Matthau and Vic Morrow, and directed by Michael Ritchie
One of Joel and Ethan Coen's favourite films, The Bad News Bears is an ugly movie with a massive heart and a gloriously grubby sense of humour. What's more, in Walter Matthau's baller-turned-booze hound Morris Buttermaker, it features one of the few movie characters capable of out-drinking Richard E Grant's Withnail.
Scripted by Burt Lancaster's son Bill and directed by the sometimes brilliant (The Candidate, Fletch), sometimes terrible (Cops And Robbersons) Michael Ritchie, the titular Bears are the unruliest pack of cubs you could ever wish to encounter: racist, foul-mouthed pre-teens with no respect for authority and even less for their team-mates. With kids like this, the last person you'd want to manage them is an aging ex-pro with a paunch, a potty mouth and a thirst of Oliver Reed proportions. But with the aforementioned Buttermaker calling the shots, a band of no-hopers became one of the hottest teams in South California, much to the disgust of Roy Turner (Morrow), the clean-cut coach of the Bears' arch-rivals and a man with no time for Buttermaker's boorish ways.
To discover what's so great about Ritchie's Bad News Bears, you need look no further than Richard Linklater's 2005 remake. Like the original, that movie features a team of kids with enough behavioural problems to flesh out an entire season of 'The Jeremy Kyle Show' and an unconventional lead in Billy Bob Thornton. If the personnel and the set-up - not to mention a lot of the jokes - are the same, Linklater's film is a far too slick affair. By contrast, Ritchie's film seems cloaked in a smog of grainy film stock and harsh lighting. The end result is a movie that seems to reflect Buttermaker's alcohol-addled state of mind and the ugliness of his young charges. It might not be pretty to look at, but it's the woozy, boozy quality of the first-run Bad News Bears that help it to stand out from the crowd.
The casting of Matthau is the movie's other master stroke. While other performers might have tried to make Buttermaker a charming old soak, the Odd Couple star is gloriously unsympathetic throughout. His is a character with little interest in improving the lot of his players and even less in improving himself - he's just an old pro who knows how to bring a team together and get the best out of players. When it was announced that Thornton would play the part in the remake, it sounded like a smart substitution. Watch Matthau pitching with a can of Schlitz in his hand and you'll appreciate that Billy Bob could no more out-perform Walt than out-drink the original Buttermaker.
Subversive in a way that a lot of subsequent teen movies have tried but failed to be, The Bad News Bears is that much more loveable for never seeking to be loved. The kids are such a despicable bunch of slobs, dweebs and juvenile delinquents that they even manage to make Tatum O'Neil as the team's ringer seem nice. And then there's the ending which is a joy in spite of its rejection of all the old sports movie cliches. A conclusion that completely suits the mood and outlook of the film, hats must be doffed to the test audience who complained when the picture screened with a more traditional finale, arguing that it lacked authenticity.
A brilliantly bleary, superbly disheveled comedy-drama, if all kids movies were like this, you wouldn't need to drag parents to the multiplexes.
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