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Bad News Bears (2005)

Billy Bob Thornton took filmgoers by surprise in 1994's Sling Blade, emerging as one of the screen's most skillful character actors. So who could have guessed, a mere decade later, he would become Hollywood's foremost on-screen degenerate? Thanks to his matter-of-fact intensity and smooth southern drawl, Thornton's taken on a few authoritarian roles (Armageddon, Friday Night Lights). But an unforgettable cameo as a lecherous American president in Love Actually and the hilarious, MPAA-defying Bad Santa apparently created a whole new niche for B.B.T. It didn't take long for studio alchemists to throw a remake of 1976's The Bad News Bears his way, even offering the re-write to Bad Santa scribes Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Thornton stars as Morris Buttermaker, a womanizing, down-on-his-luck former baseball player who spends his days working as an exterminator. The opportunity to scrape together some extra cash coaching little-league ball comes his way, thanks to attorney Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden) — even then, Buttermaker can do little but get soused during practice while his misfit team of middle-schoolers wonder why he's there (or themselves, for that matter). But after a rivalry develops between Buttermaker and championship-winning coach Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), he recruits two ringers for his team: estranged stepdaughter Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kane Kraft), who throws the hardball better than most boys, and dirt-bike-riding rebel Kelly Leak (Jeffrey Davies), who fields and slugs like a young Ken Griffey Jr. Those who enjoyed Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, as he cursed with drunken exasperation while young children sat on his knee, will find many of the same laughs in 2005's Bad News Bears as he heaps abuse upon little-leaguers and adults alike — the film's PG-13 rating ensures that the air doesn't turn too blue, but scenarists Ficarra & Requa are allowed to write for an actor they know pretty well ("You can love baseball, but it doesn't always love you back," a wistful Buttermaker tells his kids. "It's kind of like dating a German chick."). The mere fact that the movie smells like a pitch-meeting (Billy Bob! Bad News Bears!) is an easy strike against it, but the execution is agreeable enough — Thornton doesn't quite match Walter Matthau's original performance (wherein he beautifully captured W.C. Fields' dim regard for children), but he's also one of the few leading men out there who could star in a remake of this classic with some credibility. Like Thornton, director Richard Linklater is a baseball veteran (he a college player, Thornton a former minor-leaguer), which keeps the direction honest. And while the kids still have the same central-casting appeal (this time with a few twists), the fact that most were complete amateurs keeps the whole affair fresh and slightly off-kilter. There's little reason why fans of the original Bad News Bears would dislike the 2005 update — but then again, with the characters and plot left virtually intact (Ficarra & Requa call it a "remix"), there's scant room for error. Paramount's DVD release features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Director Richard Linklater and screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa offer a casual, chatty group commentary, while featurettes include "At Bat with the Bears" (11 min.), "Writing the Bad News Bears" (9 min.), "Scouting for the Big Leagues: Casting the Bad News Bears" (10 min.), and "Spring Training" (4 min.). Also on board are six deleted scenes (with optional screenwriters' commentary and a "play all" option), video baseball cards for the film's cast, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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