Starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal and scripted by Bill (son of Burt) Lancaster, the original Bad News Bears (1976) has had its unsuitable-coach-takes-on-hopeless-tykes blueprint copied countless times: from The Mighty Ducks to Hardball tothis year's Kicking And Screaming. What, then, can this 'remix' (as director Richard Linklater is calling it) offer? Pedigree, for one thing, with the School Of Rock helmer teaming with the scribes and star of Bad Santa. And that's got to make it special, right? Well... not entirely.
No question, this is a cool, smart and funny update, with a potty mouth that'll thrill kids (the 'shit' count reaches the low hundreds) and a schmaltz allergy that'll please parents. Keeping tight with Lancaster's screenplay, the film retains its anti-competitive streak while adding a few un-PC curveballs, like a South Park-style paraplegic who's mocked but never pitied. Trouble is, while Bears may shun sentiment, it doesn't quite have the heart needed to pump fresh blood into its formula's age-old veins. The second act shuffles along a little too close to the listless rhythms of its lurching anti-hero.
Then there's our team of misfit moppets, who don't gel as well as Jack Black's class of half-pint protégés. Sadly, it's not hard to tell that some Bears were cast for their comic talent, others for their throwing arms. Sure, Timmy Deters' little blond ball of rage is terrific ("Bastard!"). But while debutante Sammi Kraft (as Buttermaker's surrogate sprog) may be a deadly pitcher, she's no O'Neal.
Happily, Thornton slips easily into Matthau's shoes. No surprise, since he's marrying his last two roles - Friday Night Lights' weathered sportsman with Bad Santa's foul-mannered dipso. Yet you won't catch him on auto-pilot: whether sharing his game philosophy ("A tie's like kissing your sister"), going apeshit in the dug-out ("This is a dictatorship and I am Hitler!") or crowd-surfing at a `Bloodfarts' gig, Billy Bob brings the belly laughs. He's the good news that ensures this uneven remake never strikes out.