Pleasurably foul-mouthed and un-PC, The Bad News Bears takes the kiddie sports-team formula (or was this the origin of that trope?) and filters it exclusively through a grainy 70s Hollywood lens. The kids drink booze, smoke, swear, act out and the film – expertly directed by Michael Ritchie – doesn’t accost them for it. This is childhood. It’s all the moments you did behind your parents back. It’s childhood without the rough edges smoothed out.
It’s both brazenly raw and entertainingly escapist at the same time. These dead-end kids and their attitudes might be relatable, but the perfect group dynamic – each character ticks his own archetype box – and the crawl up to the big leagues (in the smallest possible sense) is pure Hollywood storytelling. The real sucker punch comes as the Bears lose the final game. But the downer is soon transformed into a triumph as the Bears themselves – these glorious punk shit-heels – don’t give a fuck about that trophy anyway. They look the winners in the eye and tell them to stick the trophy straight up their ass. That’s childhood.
Headlined by Walter Matthau at his most disenchanted and his most shaggy-dog, he slumps into scenes constantly cracking beers open and squinting into optimism. The supporting ensemble of younger stars (including Jackie Earle Hayley and Tatum O’Neal fresh off of her Oscar win for Paper Moon) is terrific and offsets Matthau perfectly. This is one of those films that lives and breathes with its characters and the everlasting charm of it lies in your desire to spend time with them for as long as possible.
The term “Bad News Bears” has now become shorthand for “underdogs” and it’s fitting. While held in high regard by a handful of elite fans (Tarantino lists it as one of his top ten favourite movies, Linklater loves it so much he couldn’t resist helming a remake in 2006) the film hasn’t passed down the generations as much as it perhaps deserves. It’s an excellent piece of work with lots of texture and one of the best ensembles of young actors I’ve seen. Richie keeps a sure hand on the complicated tone and the film’s affection for baseball at ground-level is pretty infectious. It’s a movie that celebrates flaws and imperfections, that cheers on the fuck-ups, the neglected and the write-offs and shows that with just a little belief and encouragement, they too can be winners regardless of whether or not they win the big game.