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click to enlarge Coach Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton, right) - would prove a wise and kindly father figure  if Daddy - was a drunkard.
  • Coach Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton, right) would prove a wise and kindly father figure if Daddy was a drunkard.

Bad News Bears (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

The only real surprise about director Richard Linklater's remake of the 1976 kid classic The Bad News Bears is that it's not God-awful.

The premise hasn't changed -- a ragtag group of Little League players gets a burned-out coach to guide them to the championship game, by hook or crook -- but, as in the real world, the language has become coarser over three decades.

Remember the pleasant shock the audience experienced when Elliott in E.T. called his brother "penis breath" in a fit of anger? Those upsets are rare anymore, but Bad News Bears treads mighty close to new heights of crude insults and crass humor.

Linklater, who has proven adept at sensitive adult films like Waking Life and last year's Before Sunset, shifted gears with the Jack Black vehicle School of Rock, proving himself GWK (good with kids) and worthy of a studio's confidence to lead a similar mainstream project.

Remakes should be boycotted in general, or limited to possibly one every two years, but instead they've become the main material flowing out of Hollywood. Still, Linklater wields an ironic touch in an undeniable departure from the original, and he's more than competent at exploring the baseball oeuvre and ethos.

Replacing and almost eclipsing Walther Matthau, the disgruntled coach of the original, is Billy Bob Thornton as coach Morris Buttermaker, a self-described "drunk who kills rats to live in a trailer." Except with the big-breasted bimbo crowd, which swarms about Buttermaker both on and off the field, the guy's a loser who knows he's a loser and, frankly, doesn't give a damn.

In a touch of political correctness that seems more intrusive than necessary, Buttermaker's team, the Bears, is formed because a do-gooder, single mother and attorney Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden), files a discrimination suit demanding that all kids be allowed to play. Accordingly, the team is made up of a kid in a wheelchair, several ethnic minorities who barely speak English, a dreamy kid who's generally out in la-la land, and a variety of other misfits -- basically, the kids who don't get picked in tryouts.

Leading their arch nemesis team, the Yankees, is smarmy Greg Kinnear as Roy Bullock, the overbearing coach who sees victory flashing like dollar signs and who mistreats his own kid publicly to get what he wants.

This role was played in the original by a genuinely menacing Vic Morrow. Kinnear might be menacing in the role of a child molester, but as an overly ambitious father, he's merely annoying. (One great bit in the film involves his nickname, "Grape Nuts," coined by Buttermaker.)

Though his supporting cast is suitably funny and cute, Thornton -- slightly lascivious, cigar-chomping, booze-guzzling, world-weary and cynical -- is the best reason to see Bad News Bears, reinforcing that this is not a kids' film. He's great in the on-the-field scenes, drunkenly smacking his players with stray balls, spouting his bizarre baseball wisdom.

"Baseball's hard," he tells his players. "You can love it but it doesn't necessarily love you back ...

"It's like dating a German chick."

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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