Cinema Signal:

The Bad News Bears:
A DVD Triple Play 3-pack of the original films from 1976-8

. "Bad News Bears"

"Bad Santa" becomes Crude Coach in this remake of a grade-school sports comedy franchise from 1976. And, if you think Billy Bob Thornton can't line up some comedic line drives from his foul-mouthed drunk of a character, laugh again. If you're bothered by his unkempt quality, you have to keep in mind that his character crawls under houses to exterminate rodents in order to support his trailer home life.

Somehow well-off baseball mom Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden) has learned that Morris Buttermaker (Thornton) has baseball experience (2/3 of an inning in the majors once), and bribes him to coach her son's team, as though it would make a difference for a group of kids lower in the school league than the cellars he works in. Mom is also prone to turn the other ear when as profane a tongue as ever was heard in a dugout spouts his gutter language. Why this doesn't bother her or the kids much almost turns the comedy into a mystery, but it's a dominant factor mostly in the first act.

Setting up the school to school competitiveness, the "Yankees" coach Bullock (Greg Kinnear) shows up early to let Buttermaker know he's aware of his past accomplishments and to welcome him into the league that he's certain will pose no challenges for his own team. Smarmy self-confidence that will be a pleasure to someday wipe from his mug.

Coach Buttermaker's "methods" to elevate his team's play doesn't derive from sharp training and effective discipline. H's too into what comes in a fifth gallon bottle to care much. But, when he senses the extent of the ineptness of his "men," it becomes necessary to take some action to give them a chance on the field. Mostly, it's a matter of adding two aces to the team, namely, his ex-girlfriend's daughter Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kane Kraft, an actual all-star pitcher with a 70 mph fastball).

At first, she flubs him off, caring little for a guy who simply walked out of her and her mom's life. But, she does come aboard and provides a mighty engaging emotional tension as she and coach form a bond.

The 2nd ace to be recruited is the wild bikerider toughy Kelly Leak (Jeff Davies), a guy who is not likely to be a team player. But Amanda gets him interested and, soon, the team isn't losing anymore, a development that results in self confidence and increased physical training.

Which doesn't help all the boys in a team with a cultural cross-section and an athletic ability spectrum. There's Emmanuel and Carlos Estrada, Armenian Gary Daragebrigadian (Jeffrey Tedmori), Toby (Ridge Canipe), Liz Whitewood's whitebread son, nerdy Prem Lahiri (Aman Johal) whose approach to baseball is from the perspective of statistical analysis, morbidly shy Timmy Lupus (Tyler Patrick Jones), bully-size Engelberg (Brandon Craggs), a rather good catcher, and paraplegic, wheelchair-bound Matthew Hooper (Troy Gentile), and Ahmad Abdul Rahim (Kenneth Harris).

Out of this, comedic missiles come at you from every direction out of unexpected mouths and situations including the political ones that hover over every sandlot and school diamond. The style is as laid back as its lead and Thornton springs of an arsenal of one liners, not all of which are based on vulgarity and/or irreverence.

Kinnear has no trouble representing a lot of baseball dads with a win-at-any-cost approach and the oily car salesman chatter whose every waking hour is devoted to conniving. Harden finds a suitable way to provide credibility in the frayed polish of her professional mom who isn't above seducing her new hero figure. Director Linklater kept his eye on the ball in capturing the essential narrative and its wider values, but seems out in left field so often in controlling the individual story arcs of his lineup. The anti-authority attitude of Kelly, for example, so tension laden in the early innings, gets completely lost in the backfield of attention.

The most memorable, however, is the ever-feisty, take-no-crap Timmy Deters as Tanner Boyle, a 3-and-a-half footer who thinks he's Shaq. He may not be that giant, but his belief that he is makes him a charmer and a very big presence on this team.

This remake is a model of rooting for the underdog with the added benefit of a coach who, in the end, realizes that it's not so much getting your best players to win for you, but getting everyone into the game, win or lose. For all its storytelling flaws (interrupted narrative flow, pacing problems, incomplete character arcs), its kind, good nature and a bellyful of Thornton one-line zingers carries this pop movie experience pretty much out of the ballpark.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Sammi Kane Kraft, Billy Bob Thornton, and Timmy Deters
Dugout time for the Bad News Bears

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