One might think that filmmakers who are moved to remake an old picture would look for at least some small way of distinguishing their effort from its predecessor. But in taking on “Bad News Bears” Richard Linklater and his associates appear to have been content to come as close as possible to replicating their nearly three-decade old model. Of course there are some alterations. The cast is different, since Walter Matthau is no longer with us to play the hapless Little League coach and Tatum O’Neal, now in her forties, might just be a trifle long in the tooth to repeat her role as the team’s star pitcher. In a rare instance of creative thought, one of the team members has been given a wheelchair, and the ethnicity of the others has been diversified; other characters have been tweaked in terms of gender and attitude. (The rival coach played by a slimy Greg Kinnear is much less threatening than Vic Mirrow was, and a woman, played archly by Marcia Gay Harden, is now the catalyst for Buttermaker’s hiring.) And the rough language in the mouth of babes has been updated somewhat. But in most respects the sense of near-duplication is overwhelming. The script is so faithful to the original that it employs many of the character names from the earlier movie. (When one’s been changed, it’s such a rare phenomenon one searches for a rationale behind it.) Edward Shearmur’s score, like Jerry Fielding’s before it, recycles tunes from Bizet’s “Carmen.” Even the mood, style and pacing Linklater has adopted–ragged, shambling, lackadaisical–have the feel of a seventies picture rather than a slick modern Hollywood product.
Of course, the first “Bad News Bears” was a moderately amusing comedy, and so a close cousin of it like Linklater’s will necessarily share some of its virtues. The idea of a bunch of misfits improving under the tutelage of a curmudgeon is a formula that’s as popular–if not more so–in 2005 as it was in 1976, and although audiences will be more familiar with it now than they were then, it still has appeal. There’s a leanness to Linklater’s work that gives the picture a warmly grubby feel. Billy Bob Thornton coasts easily through the part of Coach Buttermaker much as Matthau did, serving up the requisite portions of laid-back crabbiness and a reluctantly avuncular quality. And the youngsters are an amiable lot, from Sammi Kane Kraft’s hard-bitten Amanda and Jeffrey Davis’ near-delinquent but talented Kelly to Tyler Patrick Jones’ inept Lupus and Timmy Deters’ hyper-aggressive Tanner. And Bruce Curtis’ production design, Rogier Stoffers’ camerawork and Sandra Adair’s editing all contribute nicely to Linklater’s slightly scruffy vision.
But all of that doesn’t diminish the sense of redundancy that plagues the movie. While it may provide mild amusement to those who’ve never made the acquaintance of the earlier picture, it’s unlikely to bring anything to those who have beyond a a low-grade nostalgia. And it certainly lacks the canny combination of exuberance and warmth that marked Linklater’s last foray into family entertainment, “Rock School.” The sad but certain fact is that “Bad News Bears” is not so much a terrible movie as an unnecessary one.