Foul-mouthed and politically incorrect, The Bad News Bears presents a startlingly funny vision of childhood. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to include some of the movie’s edgier jokes in a contemporary film, and that’s a shame—screenwriter Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie lend believable spark to their story by showing characters trading cruel epithets about disability and race. This warts-and-all approach elevates The Bad News Bears from being just another underdog tale in the classic sports-movie tradition; the movie is also a wicked look at growing up the hard way.
The main adult character is Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a former minor-league player now gone to seed—he’s a rumpled drunk who works as a pool cleaner in Southern California. Buttermaker gets recruited to coach a newly formed Little League team, the Bears, which comprises rejects from other squads: bad seeds, minorities, nerds, runts, slobs. A paragon of insensitivity, Buttermaker is the worst possible person to corral this gang, since he’s as appalled by these losers as everyone else. To give the team a remote chance of success, Buttermaker enlists a pair of ringers.
First up is 12-year-old pitcher Amanda Whurlizer (Tatum O’Neal), whose mother used to date Buttermaker. She’s a wise-beyond-her-years handful, demanding endless financial perks in exchange for participating. Next, Buttermaker woos Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a local dropout who zooms around town on a Harley and makes a sketchy living with small-time scams. Watching the younger kids get schooled by the self-serving Amanda and Kelly is hilarious, especially since Buttermaker observes the whole pathetic spectacle with a mix of cynical detachment and whatever-works ruthlessness.
The contrivance, of course, is that Buttermaker falls in love with the team because of how hard the kids try to please him, but Matthau’s unsentimental performance sells the illusion nicely. Better still, Ritchie does an amazing job with the ballpark scenes, using the strains of Bizet’s “Carmen” as a leitmotif for the Bears’ outfield ineptitude; these scenes are sly ballets of expertly staged physical comedy. Ritchie also pays careful attention to vignettes taking place off the field, ensuring that even minor characters are sketched beautifully.
It helps a great deal that O’Neal was in the midst of her hot streak of precocious performances, and that Haley, in his breakout role, presented a memorable mixture of bravado and insecurity. Even the movie’s main villain, the super-competitive coach (Vic Morrow) of an opposing team, comes across as a fully realized individual, since the dynamic he shares with his long-suffering son speaks to the movie’s theme of what happens when winning eclipses other priorities.
Predictably, the departure of key players behind and in front of the camera led to diminishing returns for the movie’s first sequel, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. Written by Paul Brickman (who later wrote and directed Risky Business), Breaking Training is enervated and overly sweet but basically palatable. The story focuses on Kelly (still played by Haley) and his estranged dad, Mike (William Devane), who takes over as the Bears’ coach. Mike tries to rally the team for a big exhibition game at the Houston Astrodome, and a combination of formulaic plot elements and unwelcome sentimentality makes Breaking Training feel second-rate. Wasn’t eschewing the cheap emotionalism of traditional sports movies the point of the original film? Still, the interplay between the misfit kids, most of whom are played by the same actors, remains enjoyable, so group scenes are fun to watch.
In fact, Breaking Training is a near-masterpiece compared to the final theatrical film of the original series, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan. Although original screenwriter Bill Lancaster returned for this entry, the gimmick of the Bears getting exploited by a slick promoter (Tony Curtis) feels forced, as does the uninteresting romantic subplot involving Kelly (once more played by Haley) and a pretty Japanese teenager. Even the game-time jokes start to feel tired by this point, so Japan is to be avoided by those who wish to leave their memories of the first picture untouched. The franchise soldiered on when CBS broadcast one season of a Bad News Bears TV series in 1979–1980, with Jack Warden playing Matthau’s old role of Morris Buttermaker. Then, in 2005, the Bears returned for director Richard Linklater’s pointless remake of the original film, with Billy Bob Thornton becoming the third actor to play Buttermaker.
The Bad News Bears: RIGHT ON
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training: FUNKY
The Bad News Bears Go to Japan: LAME