The Bad News Bears (1976) Movie Review

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Much like Cape Fear, Bad News Bears is a film that’s embedded into American pop culture.  Whether it be through its 2005 remake or that episode of South Park called “The Losing Edge” which also involved little league baseball, or the fact that the overall plot of the Bad News Bears is like a cheeseburger variation.  If cinema was a burger joint then the cheeseburger is the classic underdog story, and the variation of the Bad News Bears cheeseburger is that of the worst team in any sport somehow reaching the finals by the 3rd act.  Some cheeseburgers will be much better than others.  That is life, and that is also art.  And thankfully there’s a lot of good from this film that’s covered in maple syrup and and bacon.

Directed by Michael Ritchie, our film stars Walter Matthau (aka Mr Wilson for 1993’s Dennis The Menace) as Morris Buttermaker, a retired minor-league baseball pitcher who cleans swimming pools, smokes cigars and is so alcoholic that he’ll spike his beers with stronger drinks.  He is hired to train the Bad News Bears by a councilman and attorney who is suing the competitive little league for excluding children who can’t play sports to save their lives (which includes his son).  At first Buttermaker is more interested in simply getting paid, for it turns out that his team is primarily a big collection of leftovers.  In today’s society, this sort of thing would almost never happen (no child left behind), but in the 1970s it was perhaps a different story.  Our team consisted of every “flaw” and ‘disfunction’ that had to be overcome, and this list of flaws would give the PC Police a heart attack, a stroke and bleeding of the eyes:  You had the ginger kid, the fat kid, the bookworm, the short kid with a Napoleon Complex, the shy kid, the quiet kid, the 2 mexican kids who didn’t speak english, the terrible relief pitcher with massive glasses, the african-american muslim who idolises Hank Aaron (who around this time was playing his final year in Major League Baseball), and 2 other players that we’ll get to soon.  To put it simply, it’s a team full of ethnic and athletic minorities.

After being destroyed 26-0 in the first inning of their first game (against the Yankees, the best team in the league), Buttermaker forfeit the match and then decided that there should be more to this than just a paycheck.  After much bartering and saying “Yes, I’ll buy you french jeans and pay for your ballet lessons”, Buttermaker manages to hire someone who happens to be a really good pitcher, named Amanda Whurlizer (Played by a Tatum O’Neal, aka Ryan O-Neal’s daughter and retired Tennis Player John McEnroe’s ex-wife) However, like the rest of the team, this pitcher has 1 problem; she has a flaw within this all-male all-white little league… *dun dun duuuuuuun* she’s a girl.  In fact, she’s the daughter of an ex-girlfriend of Buttermakers.  She’s a bit of a tom-boy, and her goal is to be more lady-like, as she’s just a few years away from smacking face first into the big greasy puberty wall.

After doing significantly better in their next game or 2, but still losing – Buttermaker decides he wants to include Kelly Leak (played by Rorschach himself, Jackie Earle Haley…who looks like he could have been perfect as Sid from Toy Story).  He’s a rebellious kid who chain-smokes, loan-sharks and rides a Harley-Davidson…but darn it, he’s the best athlete in the neighbourhood!  Therefore they need him on their team.

Eventually the team starts to do so well that they reach the final.  However, troubles tension, as team-playing becomes replaced with stars doing most of the work, leading to lower morale, Amanda with an elbow problem and the relationship between Buttermaker and Amanda becoming strained, when His self-hatred is revealed to be the reason he doesn’t want a close relationship with her and her mum.  I’m not going to spoil the ending, so lets talk about the characteristics:

There isn’t much music in this film, other than Goerge Bizet’s Carmen No 1 (Which, ironically enough is also used by Weird Al Yankovic in “The Beer Song” and introduced some lucky sods to the japanese anime Trigun).  It’s pretty memorable.  The cinematography is as good as you would find from the time.  The acting is very good with the possible exception of Tatum O Neal, who at times seemed a little forced when delivering dialogue at the start, but she got much better as the film progressed.  Considering he was already an unhealthy man by this stage (heart problems and once smoked 3 packs a day), Walter Matthau was excellent as a man who by this time didn’t seem to give a damn about his life or where it was going.  The characters were mostly really good though.  It’s rare to watch such politically incorrect children in film or on TV anymore (outside of South Park)..Perhaps it suggests a lack of character development…kids are too nice in film these days 😛

The story of the Bad News Bears is a fantastic morality tale about teamwork and personal development.  After a while you begin to realise that the Bears and the Yankees are like different chapters in the same book.  It’s clear that the better and more superior team (Yankees) has the same problems, and probably, at some point, made just as many mistakes, and was just as rubbish as the Bears when they played their first game.  It is also a social commentary about America’s stereotypical competitive nature, especially when it comes to sports.  The film also makes it clear that unless you had a journey with ups and downs, lots of good moments, but also plenty of mistakes, then there’s no point in knowing the ending or experiencing it.  People don’t watch TV shows or movies or read books or play video games for the ending alone, the journey is just as important, because the journey is an aspect of humanity.  We talk about “happily ever after”, but what is happily ever after?  The end of a journey?  No, it’s the beginning of another journey with a different or better coat of paint.  A change of scenery.  Even if problems somehow disappeared, there will always be room to learn.

Is this movie still relevant in today’s society?  I believe so.  They may have made 2 sequels and a remake, but this original film remains a strong contender for being 1 of the best sports movies ever made.  It came out in the same year as Rocky, and 38 years later I still think it holds up today.

Overall rating: **** out of 5

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