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A faithful remake of 1976’s Bad News Bears seemed an impossible project for 2005. And by “impossible,” I mean it’d be test-marketed straight to the shelf. Kids smoking? Yeah, right. A coach who drives while sipping from a whiskey-and-beer cocktail? Don’t think so. As for the racial slurs that flew out of the ballplayers’ mouths in the name of comedy, well, they wouldn’t exactly be considered family-friendly today.
So anyone who loves Michael Ritchie and Bill Lancaster’s underdog story for its taboo-tweaking is probably regarding the redo with the same attitude the new Morris Buttermaker does his Little League duties: “Yeah, I got enthusiasm flyin’ out my ass.” But with a surprising PG-13 rating, Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater at the helm, and the folks behind Bad Santa on the script, the new Bears, I’m happy to report, will be offending all manner of sensibilities at a multiplex near you.
Yes, with Billy Bob Thornton also on board, the movie is essentially a sports version of his naughty ho-ho-ho-ing back in 2003. But the formula works. Though I’m quite sure the words “brilliant” and “Billy Bob” haven’t appeared in the same sentence since the Scary One’s Sling Blade days, nothing else can describe how Thornton handles Buttermaker’s first introduction to his hapless “fuckin’ League of Nations” team. Some of the scene, admittedly, is just run-of-the-mill jackassery. He mispronounces the foreign players’ names. He calls the team’s lone black player “bro.” But when one of two Mexican brothers begins speaking to Buttermaker in Spanish, Thornton dons a barely veiled look of disbelief and pulls his lips back for a microsecond in a way that’s, no two ways about it, hilariously, malignantly brilliant.
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Screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa didn’t mess a whole lot with the story, even lifting certain scenes and dialogue wholesale. Buttermaker, now a failed-pro-ballplayer-turned-rat-exterminator instead of a pool cleaner, still drives a big yellow Caddy and clashes with perfectionist coach Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear). After an uptight mom (Marcia Gay Harden) sues the league to allow even the most pathetic kids to play, Buttermaker agrees to coach them for some extra money—he spends all of his own on booze, cigarettes, and women, as we see in the montage of the “important man shit” he tells someone he’s got to do. Not nearly as enthused about the prospect are the boys themselves, who, in addition to the requisite Fat Kid (Brandon Craggs), Sickly Kid (Tyler Patrick Jones), and Angry Kid (Timmy Deters), include a Wheelchair-Bound Kid (Troy Gentile) and an Armenian Kid (Jeffrey Tedmori) whose parents don’t believe in baseball.
The kids are still foul-mouthed and funny as they duck away from balls and curse their drunken, good-for-nothing coach. But Thornton is given all the best laughs, whether it’s his advice to the Armenian, Garo (“Lie your ass off—this is America! The important thing is you’re right and they’re wrong”), his own sorry parenting (“Don’t talk to anybody but what’s-his-ass,” he tells his pitching-ace daughter), or his willingness to exploit others for his own benefit (“Hey coach, what’s ‘carcinogen’ mean?” a player asks while helping to exterminate some rodents. “Propaganda,” is the reply). Think of him as the cynical, resigned opposite of the grown-up in Linklater’s last experiment pairing a hopeless adult with clueless children, 2003’s School of Rock.
Of course, this is a sports flick, so everyone gets a chance to overcome his weaknesses—and despite, thank God, the filmmakers’ decision to stick to a nonsugarcoated outcome, it’s all uplifting nonetheless. Too bad Linklater & Co. couldn’t trust Thornton to show us what a dirtbag Buttermaker is on his own instead of, say, throwing in that predictable team trip to Hooters. Such lapses mean that Bad News Bears isn’t quite the sparkling showcase for Thornton that School of Rock was for Jack Black. But it’s hardly a dull one. Anyone who’d like to suggest Billy Bob can’t carry a movie without a funny accent and a fistful of French-fried potaters should heed Buttermaker’s words to the little Spanish speaker: “You can save it, son.”
No matter how good-humored they are, the guys in Murderball have a way of making the jokes in Bad News Bears regarding cripples and helmets seem not so funny: They’re quadriplegics. Not that they ask to be pitied. In fact, the tough, grounded, and smart athletes profiled in Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s documentary even crack a joke or two of their own.
The nickname for the sport officially known as quadriplegic rugby seems obvious after the gist of the game is described: “It’s basically kill the man with the ball,” explains one participant. In reinforced wheelchairs that can take a pounding, players regularly knock each other sideways in their attempts to score. And it’s not just a recreational sport: Teams in 12 countries compete in the Paralympics, whose 2004 matches are documented here.
Murderball, though, isn’t as much about the sport as the men who play it. Rubin and Shapiro profile several strong personalities, including Mark Zupan, a tattooed, goateed hothead who’s shown in the opening scene (metaphor alert!) putting his pants on one leg at a time, and Scott Hogsett, who become paralyzed in an accident at age 19 and bristles at anyone who mistakes the Paralympics for the Special Olympics. (“All of a sudden I went from being a cripple to a fuckin’ retard!”) Each of their stories about how they became handicapped is touched on, with Zupan’s going into heartbreaking detail about his eventual reunion with the friend whose drunk driving caused his paralysis.
Amazingly, however, the filmmakers succeed in making a movie that’s heavy on neither the yay-them! condescension nor the yay-us! sympathy. Most of the guys shown here are now comfortable with their lots, but they admit that the first couple of years were difficult. To contrast the confidence of the gladiators, Murderball also features Keith Cavill, a young man recently injured in a motorcycle accident who’s still in the throes of adjustment. We see him as he goes through therapy and comes home, where he reacts less than positively to the redone amenities. Keith, who loved racing, certainly does feel sorry for himself—until he learns about quad rugby, meets Zupan, and sees that his competitive life may not be over after all. None of the guys, however, is above finding humor in his situation, whether it’s in a hospital video titled Sexuality Reborn or Keith’s asking if a hard-to-open farewell card is a “therapy joke.”
Matchups between longtime rivals Team USA and Team Canada—fueled mostly by the disaffection of Canadian coach Joe Soares, who switched sides after a perceived slight by the Americans—are the highlights of the movie, which in refreshing Bad News Bears style doesn’t always result in our homeboys coming out on top. Speed metal and sometimes-nauseating camerawork add to the roughness of the already-brutal games, which are as thrilling as those of any fast-paced, able-bodied sport. (Though the use of the Polyphonic Spree’s “Light and Day/Reach for the Sun” makes things seem a bit more wussy.)
Ultimately, however, Murderball succeeds like any good sports movie does: by going beyond the competitions to offer insights about perseverance, relationships, attitude, and getting the most out of the time you’re given, whatever body you’re stuck in. As one player remarks, “Your mind becomes a bigger disability than physical stuff.”CP