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At a time when sports movies can't be just sports movies anymore—when, as in Cinderella Man and Seabiscuit, they have to be hymns to our national character—it's both startling and soothing to take a second look at Michael Ritchie's Little League comedy The Bad News Bears. A surprise hit when it was released in 1976—and recently remade by Richard Linklater in a version starring Billy Bob Thornton (Paramount, July 22)—the movie is both an antidote to the sentimentality that currently affects sports movies and the last hurrah for the glorious disreputability that characterized the genre in the late '60s and early '70s.
For a while there, Americans were happy to ridicule the inspirational syrup that squares love to ladle over sports. The football game in M*A*S*H; the original version of The Longest Yard; Jim Bouton's notorious memoir Ball Four (which Commissioner Bowie Kuhn deemed "detrimental to baseball," as priceless a compliment as a movie's being condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency); Dan Jenkins' novel Semi-Tough—these works portrayed sports as something people watched because it was fun and played because it could bring them glory, money, drugs, women, and the chance to tell the bastards hounding you to stick it where the sun don't shine.
When Burt Reynolds delivered his "Win one for the Gipper" speech in 1974's The Longest Yard, both he and the audience knew it was bullshit, and the kick of it was our shared derision for all the inspirational pap that movies had pushed at us for decades. Six years later the man who, as George Gipper in Knute Rockne, All American, inspired the prototype for all those phony motivational speeches was in the White House, and a bushel of the hoary clichés that had been banished from sports movies and all movies was soon to return. The nadir of schmaltz came the year after Ronald Reagan left office, with Field of Dreams, in which '60s veterans sure did regret all that trouble they caused by rocking the boat, and baseball was held up as the one thing that could make America great again.
You could argue that, on its face, the original Bad News Bears pushes a similarly reassuring message. Walter Matthau plays Buttermaker, a boozing former minor-leaguer hired by a slimy city councilman to coach a Little League team of kids so bad they can't get on any other teams. The movie shows how these kids, truly wretched baseball players, learn that there are more important things than winning, like self-confidence and teamwork.
What keeps the movie from being a worthy little life lesson, what makes it so much fun, is the subversive way Ritchie and screenwriter Bill Lancaster go about telling a conventional story. The Bad News Bears is defiantly not charming. The Bears play so horribly during their first game they can't manage to get three strikes on the opposing hitters to get their turn at bat. The councilman, who fought to bring the team into being (and bribed Buttermaker to coach it), is so embarrassed he wants the Bears to disband.
Ultimately, it isn't can-do spirit that inspires the kids. They do it, with Buttermaker's collusion, to piss off the councilman and everyone else (like Vic Morrow, as the coach of a rival team) who thinks they don't belong on the field. And they don't get better simply because of hard work and stick-to-it-iveness. Buttermaker brings in a ringer, Amanda (Tatum O'Neal), the daughter of an ex whom he coached into becoming a wicked pitcher.
The integrity of the movie lies in refusing to make the Bears cuddly or lovable. Their crudest member, a towheaded misanthrope named Tanner (Chris Barnes), sums up his teammates as "Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eating moron." Ritchie resists the temptation to depict the kids' foul mouths, questionable personal grooming habits, and all-around crumminess as cute precociousness. He isn't afraid to be both appalled and amused by them. The Bad News Bears offers a brief glimpse of a moment like the pre-code early '30s when movies had no use for moralism. The sawed-off badass (Jackie Earle Haley) who becomes the Bears' star slugger smokes his way through the movie; Buttermaker slips the kids beers after they play a particularly good game.
Then again, a movie that makes Walter Matthau a mentor isn't interested in building up young minds. With that lumpy face bobbing over his tall frame the way a bulging kerchief hangs at the end of a hobo's stick, Matthau's demeanor tells you he doesn't expect much good to come of anything. That doesn't keep him from trying, which is why he recruits Amanda as his ace pitcher. And Buttermaker has his own strange moral code, deeming it just as important to compliment one of the kids on mixing him a perfect martini as on his performance on field.
What keeps The Bad News Bears from falling into the post-Watergate hopelessness that dogged movies of the time is that Ritchie's is a cheerful cynicism. For Ritchie, boosterism and patriotism are just more havens for petty corruption and hypocrisy. And while it's in no way a subtle movie, watching it today, you're struck by how a movie this relaxed in its approach could be such a crowd-pleaser. (I confess to never bothering with the sequels The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan.)