By Bill Simmons
Well, they finally decided to remake the "Bad News Bears," coming Friday to a Theater Near You. Normally I'm against these decisions -- especially when a top-20 sports movie is involved -- but the old "Bears" movie came out 29 years and 10-15 Tatum O'Neal rehab stints ago. So maybe it was time. Next week, you can even read my review. Assuming it deserves one.
|Sports Guy At The Movies|
|In no particular order, Bill Simmons presents his "72 Best Sports Movies Of The Past 33 Years." Here's what we have so far:
For now, we tackle two pivotal questions: Should they have remade the first "Bears" movie or the wildly underrated sequel, "Bad News Bears in Breaking Training?" And which movie ranks higher on my "Top 72 Movies of The Past 33 Years" list? Let's break this baby down, Dr. Jack-style
PLOTS IN A NUTSHELL
The original "Bears" stars an acid-tongued pool cleaner/drunk named Buttermaker, who moonlights as the paid-under-the-table manager of the ragtag Bears. After nearly folding the team after a first-inning forfeit, Buttermaker imports the town bad-ass (Kelly Leak) and an adorable 12-year-old pitcher with a cannon arm (Amanda Whurlizter), turning their season around before they lose a heartbreaking finale against the evil Yankees. Also, Buttermaker and Amanda develop a pseudo father-daughter connection, and we learn about the evils of organized youth sports, that you can still be winners without winning the title, and that a chain-smoking alcoholic can manage your child's Little League team (as long as he doesn't molest any of the players).
The sequel features the same group (sans Buttermaker and Amanda) heading to the Astrodome to play the powerhouse Houston Toros, with the winner getting to play a Japanese All-Star team overseas. (Who was organizing these games? Who paid for the trips? Why did the Bears represent California when they didn't even win their town's Little League title? Your guess is as good as mine.) After Kelly and new pitcher/cohort Carmen Ronzonni steal a nifty brown '70s van, they drive the rest of the 13-year-old Bears from California to Texas, convince Kelly's estranged Dad (Mike Leak) to coach the team, and eventually upset the Toros and make a third movie that never happened.
(Follow-up note: I couldn't find my copy of the "Bears 2" DVD, so I had to journey down to Best Buy to pick up another one. Of course, they carried only the Bad News Bears Gift Set -- featuring 1, 2 and 3 for $16.99 -- which was the only way they could ever convince anyone to own the third movie, truly one of the worst sports movies of all-time. You know, if it actually happened. By the way, ESPN owes me $16.99.)
The original "Bears" features Walter Matthau as Buttermaker, one of those parts you can't possibly imagine someone else playing (my main reservation with the remake). If they ever make a Likable Curmudgeon Hall of Fame, Matthau would be the Babe Ruth of that place.
Meanwhile, the sequel features William Devane as Kelly's Dad, one of the more underrated coaching jobs in Hollywood history. Think about it. Kelly shows up out of nowhere, Kelly's dad bails the Bears out of jail, and within two scenes, he's belting everyone ground balls; screaming "Let's look alive out there!"; catching throws with his bare hand; teaching Tanner how to field ground balls; even changing Carmen's pitching mechanics. Then he cheats during the big game and gets away with it (more on this in a second), leads the Astrodome in a "Let them play!" chant and reconciles with his son. And he never seems embarrassed to appear in a movie in which the actor playing his 13-year-old son is three years younger than him in real life.
SLIGHT EDGE: BEARS
In the sequel, Jimmy Baio plays Carmen like a cross between Fred Savage, A.J. Soprano and Joe Pesci, and I'm almost positive that's a compliment. You could even argue that, between "Bears 2" and his starring role on "Soap" (an inventive comedy back in the day), Jimmy Baio had bragging rights in the Baio family for three years at least until Scott Baio hit puberty, took some of Fonz's best lines on "Happy Days," became the MJ of "The Battle of the Network Stars" and enjoyed carnal knowledge with just about every hot female celebrity from the '80s. By 1985, this was a bigger mismatch than Ali-Patterson. But in 1977, Jimmy Baio was running away with this thing. I'm telling you.
As for Tatum O'Neal as Amanda I mean, what can you say? She was the ultimate 12-year-old, and I don't mean that in an R Kelly kind of way. Every teenager in the 70s was in love with her -- she was blonde and pretty, had a sense of humor and a cannon arm, and she even won an Oscar before she turned 10. The total package in every respect.
And then there's this: Up until Natalie Portman's breakout role in "Beautiful Girls," Tatum probably held the title for "Underaged Actress That Every Guy Thinks Was Hot Even Though We Obviously Wouldn't Act On It" (which I discussed in detail in a July mailbag last year). Then Tatum made "Little Darlings" with Kristy McNichol (and looked awkward as hell), started having drug problems, pulled a Yoko Ono on John McEnroe's tennis career suddenly she didn't seem so attractive anymore. Back then? A superduperstar. She even received $350,000 and 9-percent of the gross for appearing in "Bears," which was unheard of back in the day. And the whole "Female pitching for a boys baseball team" subplot was practically revolutionary in 1976 -- remember, this we were still a few years away from Title IX and a few decades away from Christine Brennan columns and the WNBA.
MAJOR EDGE: BEARS
Kelly Leak for both versions, played by the immortal Jackie Earle Haley -- one of the inaugural members of the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars, as well as a dead ringer for Steve Nash (to the point that it's almost impossible to watch either "Bears" movie without expecting Kelly Leak to suddenly run a pick-and-roll with Ahmad Abdul Rahim). In the original "Bears," Kelly actually looks 12 and ranks among the more believable sports movie stud athletes. But that's a mere appetizer for the sequel, when Kelly accomplishes the following things:
1. Concocts the plan to snooker everyone's parents into believing that the Lester (the baseball field's mentally challenged groundskeeper) was their new coach for the upcoming road trip, teaching Lester to greet everyone by saying "Hello, how are you?" so they won't suspect anything (one of the funniest scenes in the movie, as well as an omen for the Grady Little Era in Boston 25 years later).
|Bad News Bears Report Card|
Production Value: A
Sports Scenes: B
Chill Scenes (1): B-minus
Climactic Game Scene: A-minus
Final Scene: A-plus
DVD Extras: F-minus
Intentional Comedy: B-plus
Unintentional Comedy: C-minus
Defining Unintentional Comedy Scene: None
Overall Implausibility: C
Dated-ness: C-minus (It's a little dated)
Gratuitous Sex/Nudity: None
Lead Actor: A
Supporting cast: A-minus
Wet Blanket Girlfriend/Token Hot Chick: A-minus (in this case, Tatum O'Neal)
Token Fat Guy: A-plus-plus (remember, Engelberg pretty much invented the genre)"
Token Angry Black Guy(s): B-plus
That Guy Factor: C-plus
Defining Quote: Can't be printed on ESPN.com (the Tanner quote)
Intangibles: A-plus (for being the first-ever kids sports movie that worked)
2. Drives the aformentioned stolen van nearly 1,500 miles from California to Houston, even ducking the cops and Engelberg's never-ending barrage of gas.
3. Smokes at least 25-30 butts.
4. Unleashes a set of Appalachian teeth right out of Dakota Fanning's playbook.
5. Nearly gets into a pregame fight with five of the Toros, leading to a Cruise-like moment when Kelly pushes two guys off him, then stands in place with his hands raised, shakes for a few seconds like he's having a seizure, then sprints away at a speed three times faster than Rocky Balboa's sprint at the end of "Rocky I." It's a remarkable sequence, maybe a 95 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale.
6. Goes 3-for-3 in a four-inning game in which the Bears score only six runs. Impossible, you say? Just wait.
7. Wears one of those brown suede '70s jackets with the little strings hanging off it, absolutely the funniest ongoing subplot in the movie.
8. And here's the biggie
During the climactic lifetalk with his father, Kelly completes the 70s Bad Ass Quadfecta, which goes like this: If you're under 15, you're appearing in a movie/TV show/Afterschool Special from the 70s, and you ride a motorcycle, smoke butts, bristle at authority, own a bitching jacket AND know how to shoot some stick -- all in the same movie/TV show/Afterschool Special -- lemme tell you something, the other kids WILL respect you. That's just the way the '70s worked.
One more note: If it wasn't for the kid playing Rudi Stein (who was legitimately 35 in the sequel and may have been Elliott Gould), Jackie would have been the oldest kid in this movie by 5-6 years. Warrants mentioning. Just a tour de force from start to finish.
MAJOR EDGE: SEQUEL
Let's see the first "Bears" was the first sports comedy featuring kids, a concept that was ripped off about a kajillion times over the next three decades (most egregiously by "Hardball"). It also skewers the Overbearing Little League Parent phenomenon -- we all know someone like Coach Turner (the hateful Yankees coach), played with just the right amount of annoying swagger by Vic Morrow. And Joey Turner's meltdown on the mound set the standard for dysfunctional parent-athlete relationships for years to come, at least until Bryce the effeminate figure skater and his hateful, sneering mother took this dynamic to another level on Bravo's "Sports Kids Moms & Dads" this summer.
As for the sequel, it didn't break any ground whatsover, although "Breaking Training" probably goes down as the third-best sequel ever (right behind "Godfather 2" and "Terminator 2" and just ahead of "Lethal Weapon 2" and "Beverly Hills Cop 2"). And when you consider that it's 100 times easier to make a crummy sequel than a good one, that's a pretty good accomplishment.
You always hear about the two Darrins on "Bewitched," the two Willie Mays Hayes's in "Major League" and even the 47 different Emanuelles on Cinemax but you never hear anyone mention the dueling Engelbergs. In the original "Bears," Engelberg was a realistic overweight catcher with some pop in his bat, a wiseass who shoots Joey Turner a middle finger during a pivotal at-bat against the Yankees. In the sequel, Engelberg gained about 35 pounds and can barely make it down to first base, but he has a funnier role (including four separate bathroom gags and a KFC order). This ends up being like the David Lee Roth/Sammy Hagar argument with Van Halen -- I know Engelberg 1 was better in every respect (especially as a hitter), but I can't shake my soft spot for Engelberg 2 because of the "What do you want, it's nature!" line when he's making the van pull over for the umpteenth time. Now that's comedy.
Other than Engelberg, everyone from the Bears returns for the second movie. And sure, none of the other supporting characters was as good as Morrow, but how could you top the climactic cameos by Cesar Cedeno and Bob Watson, including Watson's watershed "Hey, come on, let the kids play!" line. Isn't it ironic that Major League Baseball's current disciplinarian and wiseass was the same guy who nearly caused a riot at the Astrodome in 1977?
(I never thought the Bears movies received enough credit for the characters they created -- unlike nowadays, when every children's sports movie has to play out like the rainbow coalition, the characters in these movies were perfectly sketched out. I always enjoyed the Bears. How the TV series failed remains one of the great mysteries of life. And while we're here, kudos to the Tanner character -- who remains entertaining as hell even 30 years later. I never thought Chris Barnes got enough credit for playing Tanner. Who could have been better? He was like Macaulay Culkin crossed with Al Campanis and Kyle Farnsworth.)
I liked the spirit behind the tobacco-spitting, gay-bashing rednecks from Houston, but you can't top a baseball movie in which the elitist, overcompetitive jerks in first place were also named "The Yankees," especially when they were managed by an overbearing child-slapper. Good times!
Don't get me wrong, the original "Bears" had a few chuckles -- most notably some of Tanner's lines and the running joke of "Chico's Bail Bonds" sponsoring the team. But the sequel has some laugh-out-loud moments, including the aformentioned groundskeeper scene; Ahmad's "We going to the joint for sure!" routine; Tanner's letters to Luper; the scene when they try to pick up a cute hitchhiker; the Agilar brothers happily reading Playboy; Kelly accidentally interrupting Tanner's "Win one for the Luper" speech; every Engelberg moment; Tanner barking at Houston's catcher, "Shut up, you redneck!" and Kelly's incomparable suede jacket. I don't know what's wrong with me, but the sequel kills me. I don't think I would have changed a single scene, other than some of the sappy stuff with Kelly and his Dad. When a 28-year-old movie still makes you giggle and guffaw, that's saying something.
(Random note: The sequel was written by Paul Brickman, who ended up writing and directing "Risky Business" six years later. I always found this interesting.)
MISSING PARENT COMPLEX
A necessary plot development in both movies, although it was executed better in the first one (there were some genuine layers to the Buttermaker-Amanda relationship). But the sequel had the underrated moment when Kelly drops in on his dad at work, followed by Devane's struggling to recognize him, and you can almost tell he's thinking, "Oh, crap, this midget chain-smoking mutant with the queer jacket is probably my bastard son should I pretend I don't know him? Dammit! It's too late! He's on to me!" before he says the word, "Kelly?" Always enjoyable.
No contest. From beginning to end, the Astrodome Game slaughters anything that happened in the first "Bears" movie.
Two semi-gaping holes with the original Bears movie. First, why didn't Buttermaker consider pitching Kelly Leak? Really? This was the only team in the history of Little League that buried its best athlete in center field? You're telling me he couldn't have done better than Rudi Stein in the final Yankees game? (By the way, the parallels between Rudi in that game and Calvin Schiraldi in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series are simply staggering, right down to their gawky bodies and deer-in-the-headlights look.) And second, why bat Rudi between Kelly and Engelberg? Who doesn't put their best two hitters back to back? That always bugged me.
But those were mere appetizers compared with the Bears' head-scratching batting order at the Astrodome that ranks right up there with the "How did Buddy end up back on Hickory High?" and "Why did Rocky's son age seven full years while Rocky was away in Russia?" as one of the most unanswerable sports movie subplots. Here's how the four-inning game plays out:
First inning: Tanner, Ahmed and Engelberg (the 1-2-3 batters) all make outs. Why Kelly wasn't batting third, we'll never know.
Second inning: Kelly doubles. Feldman flies out. Toby singles. Then Miguel Agilar (the Mark Bellhorn of this team) grounds into a double play. So far, we've seen all seven Bears batters, with the 8-9-1 part of the order coming up.
Third inning: We see three at-bats -- Ahmad's triple, Engelberg's fly out, and Kelly's homer to make it 5-2 after three. Since Ahmad was allegedly the fourth batter of the inning, we missed the 8-9-1 batters, plus, someone else made the last out. So either the director fell asleep, or Mike Leak used the "Let Them Play!" hiatus to move his batting order around and hoped the Toros didn't notice. I'm leaning toward the latter.
Fourth inning: Toby bats first and singles, followed by Ogilvie grounding out. Who comes up next? That's right, Kelly Leak! Somehow the Toros don't notice this, even though he's the only threat on the Bears. Anyway, Kelly singles -- putting him a triple away from the cycle. He's followed by Jose Agilar (the Jeremy Giambi to Miguel's Jason Giambi), who strikes out on three pitches. Rudi Stein comes up next (maybe pinch hitting?) and gets hit by a pitch. Then Carmen strikes a inside-the-park grand slam for the dramatic 6-5 win.
|Bad News Bears Breaking Training Report Card|
Production Value: B-plus
Sports Scenes: A-minus
Chill Scenes (3): A
Climactic Game Scene: A-plus
Final Scene: B-plus
DVD Extras: F-minus
Intentional Comedy: A
Unintentional Comedy: A
Defining Unintentional Comedy Scene: A-minus (Kelly's quivering meltdown/sprint)
Overall Implausibility: A-plus
Dated-ness: A-minus (it's aged quite well)
Gratuitous Sex/Nudity: None
Lead Actor: B-plus
Sidekick(s): A-minus (Kelly Leak)
Supporting cast: B-plus
Wet Blanket Girlfriend/Token Hot Chick: None
Token Fat Guy: B-plus
Token Angry Black Guy(s): A-minus
That Guy Factor: C-minus
Defining Quote: A-plus-plus ("Let them play! Let them play!")
Intangibles: A-minus (for pulling off a successful sequel)
The question remains: How did Kelly bat for three consecutive innings? Did they think we wouldn't catch this? Was there a subplot in which William Devane pulled Kelly aside and said, "Listen, we need runs, I'm sending you up there every inning until somebody notices"? And why won't Terry Francona try this tactic with David Ortiz? Regardless, I'm calling this the second-best Beneficial Sports Movie Glitch of all-time.
MAJOR EDGE: SEQUEL
In the original "Bears" (a crisper movie in every respect), they made the groundbreaking decision to use Bizet's "Carmen" and it pretty much made the movie. Although they used similar classical music in "Bears 2" (not as effectively), there was a giddy '70s song during the road trip called "Life is Looking Good" that ranked alongside "Love Conquers All" (from "One on One") and "I'm Born Again" (from "Fast Break") as one of the three cheesiest '70s Sports Movies Songs. Still, it wasn't "Carmen."
If not for "Fast Break," the original "Bears" would have been the most politically incorrect sports movie ever, between the constant drinking and smoking, the borderline child abuse, the creepy sexual tension between Buttermaker and Amanda, and Tanner's famous line that I'm not even allowed to THINK about repeating on ESPN.com. But everyone forgets, Tanner repeats the same famous line in the sequel (adding a slur on Italians at the end), and in the pantheon of "Improbable Kids Movie Plots That Would Never Be Allowed Today," glorifying 12 kids stealing a van and driving halfway across the country has to rank right up there. So this was closer than you think.
Always the crucial category in any sports movie. And here's the biggest problem with the original "Bears" -- it came out right when people were still figuring out what worked and didn't work in sports movies. For instance, there were two potential chill scenes that could have played even better, both from the Yankees game: Timmy Lupus' improbable catch in right field (a classic moment), and Kelly's getting thrown out at home to end the game (where was the drama on that one?). As it stands, the Lupus catch gets designated Chill Scene status, and I'm willing to discuss the terrific final scene (when Tanner tells the Yankees to take the trophy and stick it, followed by everyone pouring beer on one another).
But I count three legitimate Chill Scenes in the sequel: The scene when they're driving by the Astrodome for the first time, Carmen's game-winning grand slam, and most importantly, Tanner refusing to come off the field when the Astrodome game was prematurely called after the second inning -- great plot device, by the way -- then getting chased around by two security guards, leading to the famous Watson line, then Devane hopping out onto the field and starting a "Let Them Play! Let them play!" chant with everyone in the Astrodome joining in, and finally, the scoreboard flashing the "PLAY BALL!" sign and everyone going bonkers. The most memorable scene in any "Bad News Bears" movie, bar none, as well as a line that's fun to break out right after a keg party has been broken up by campus police.
MAJOR EDGE: SEQUEL
The question remains
Which movie ranks higher on my Top 72 Sports Movies list? I'm voting for the original "Bears," and only because it was so ahead of its time. Hence, I'm designating the original No. 18, with the sequel trailing at No. 22. More important, they made the right decision to remake the original one, for two reasons:
1. After 29 years, it was probably time. The original "Bears" definitely feels a little dated. There's no question about it. Whether the remake works remains to be seen.
2. You couldn't possibly remake a movie as crazy as "Bad News Bears in Breaking Training." Is there a 2005 equivalent for Kelly Leak's suede jacket? What current stadium carries the cultural significance/cool quotient of the Astrodome in 1977? How could the "Let Them Play" scene work a second time? What studio would greenlight a movie in which a bunch of California kids steal a van? How could you top Kelly batting three times in three innings? And who could possibly fill the shoes of Jackie Earle Haley, William Devane and Bob Watson?
The answers? No, nothing, no, none, of course not, and nobody.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.