The Bad News Bears (1976) / Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for language and youth drinking
Running Time: 102 min.

Cast: Walter Matthau, Tatum O'Neal, Chris Barnes, Ben Piazza, Vic Morrow, Jackie Earle Haley, Erin Blunt, Joyce Van Patten, Gary Lee Cavagnaro, Jaime Escobedo, Scott Firestone, Alfred W. Lutter, George Gonzales, Quinn Smith, Brett Marx, David Pollock
Director: Michael Ritchie
Screenplay: Bill Lancaster
Review published July 22, 2005

Walter Matthau (Charade, The Couch Trip) plays aging alcoholic Morris Buttermaker, a one time minor league prospect turned pool cleaner, with not much to show for his life except some empty beer cans.  Morris get the chance to make some extra cash by coaching a little league baseball team although he isn't expected to win, since most of these boys are the ones that didn't make the teams.  The money is all Morris cares about anyway, so he's content to let them lose, but once he sees them take their first shellacking, he has a change of heart.  Recruiting an ace girl pitcher (O'Neal, Paper Moon) and the talented neighborhood punk (Haley, Breaking Away), he gets the tools he needs for some success, but do the kids want to play for fun or just to win?

The Bad News Bears might seem like formula stuff for most of today's audiences, but really, it's the blueprint by which most other kid sports films would follow.  Interestingly enough, unlike most of today's films, this one isn't quite as easy to predict, mostly because the characters are portrayed in less of a stereotypical one-joke fashion as they are now.  It's also not very politically correct, with potty-mouthed children, racial innuendo, and enough shots of drinking (even the kids get a taste before it's all through) and fistfights to fill most roadhouse films.  I guess that's why I like it -- it's a kids movie that takes chances, brash and bold, undiluted by censors and people that think children need to be protected from everything or they will grow up evil.

Although the kids are likeable enough, it's really Matthau's ingratiating performance that nails this one down in the column of good sports films.  With his dry wit and irreverent swagger, he exudes every bit of the drunken oafishness his character requires, but at the same time, he is wholly likeable, even when he goes too far in his disciplinary actions. 

The Bad News Bears scores points for at least sending the message that many of today's films do not -- children should play sports for the love and the fun of it, and less emphasis should be put on winning it all.  Nowadays, there's never any question that our misfits will win it all, but with The Bad News Bears even when you're sure, you're never really quite sure, which makes it a much better film in the end.  Despite countless imitations, with the exception of wince-inducing, dated racial humor, it stands up just as well today as it ever has.

-- Remade as Bad News Bears (2005)

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo