Michael Ritchie’s 1976 film “The Bad News Bears” is one of the quintessential movies of the 70’s. Though it focuses on a little league baseball team, it is most definitely not a kids movie. Known for it’s wealth of crude language and racial slurs, much of it coming from the mouths of kids, it’s not exactly family channel material. What it IS is a very realistic look at suburban America and our competitive spirit. The film was a big success and it ended up spawning two less fondly remembered sequels…both of which, though preserving some of the harsh content of the first film, were geared a bit more for the young’uns. Today we look at the first of the sequels, 1977’s “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.”
Gone are the two above-the-title names of the original film, Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal, but much of the original team is back, including: foul-mouthed Tanner (Chris Barnes), Harpo Marx lookalike Jimmy (Brett Marx…who was a grandson of Gummo Marx), the lone African-american team member Ahmad (Erin Blunt), portly catcher Engleberg (Jeffery Lewis Star, replacing Gary Lee Cavagnaro from the first film), long-haired Toby (David Stambaugh), nerdy Rudi (David Pollack), and team statistician Ogilvie (Alfred W Lutter). “Boger-eater” Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith) also puts in an appearance, though a broken leg is keeping him from playing this season. And, of course, there’s the team’s power-hitter…motorcycle-riding Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley)
As the film opens, the team has received word that their achievements the previous season have earned them the right to play a game against a team from Texas in the Houston Astrodome. The winner earns the right to play in Japan (thus setting up the third film). Problem is, their new coach (Dolph Sweet) is a militaristic jerk who the gang quickly runs off. But the team hatches a plan to convince their parents that the clueless park groundskeeper is their new coach. After all the parents have dropped of the kids, they all hop into Kelly’s “borrowed” van and heads for Texas…without the “coach.” Along with them is a new team member recruited by Kelly, pitcher Carmen Ronzonni (Jimmy Baio).
There are several funny, and some not-so-funny, moments as the team makes their way down to Houston. Some of the moments are downright Our Gang-ish in their style. Personally, I love the bit where after they manage to get a hotel room, Ahmad runs into the bathroom and complains that they can’t even use it because it’s being sanitized (remember the old paper straps they used to put on hotel toilet seats folks?). A key incident along the journey, though, is where the team plays a pickup game with a group of native-american kids. Through the course of this game, they realize that Carmen may not be the quality pitcher he has made himself out to be.
When the team finally makes it to Houston, they are met with trouble. Their illegally parked van draws the attention of Officer Mackie (Lane Smith) who insists on meeting their coach. Kelly is left with one choice, he calls upon his estranged father, Mike Leak (William Devane), to be the team’s coach for the week. He agrees and starts whipping the team into shape. Meanwhile, the other team, the Toros, begin a campaign of giving the bears a hard time. It all culminates in the big showdown in the dome.
“The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” is a fun film, even if the whole thing is a little contrived. Exactly why the 2nd place finishing Bears end up being their league’s representatives in the Astrodome game is never really explained…but hey, it’s their movie. Even if the situations are a little forced this time around, the kids are still fun, and believable, characters. I grew up with kids like this…so there’s always plenty of nostalgia for me when watching a Bad News Bears films. I’ve always loved the scene where Tanner refuses to get off the field, running and ducking from the umpires.
As much as I liked the kids, I really gotta hand it to William Devane. Even surrounded by a group of nutty kids, he holds his own. His character is the complete opposite of Matthau’s Buttermaker from the first film. His struggle to be a father to the son he barely knows is honest, overcompensating somewhat as he seems to focus more on the other team members who all look up to Kelly.
The story is far from perfect, and the humor is hit and miss, but in the grand scheme of baseball movies, this film has one of the most memorable sequences of all time. That being the scene where the umpires stop the big game midway through because it’s going too long. Devane then leads the Astrodome crowd in chanting “Let them play! Let them play!” until the officials change their minds. It’s a scene that’s a testament to what the game of baseball means to kids…and to the American people as a whole.
When compared to the original, “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” comes nowhere close. But it is still a fun film…full of kids being kids and the simple joy of hitting a ball with a bat!