Remakes are always tricky propositions. Usually the only films that need to be remade are the bad ones, but the only films that do get remade are the good ones. The strongest remakes, such as last year's politically incisive The Manchurian Candidate, update the material with a renewed sense of purpose while the worst are just pale retreads, uninspired and unnecessary. Richard Linklater's Bad News Bears, a faithful "remix" of the raunchy 1976 underdog comedy, does nothing to justify its own existence other than be consistently funny from start to finish. It's the exception to the rule, a relaxed and confident piece of formula filmmaking that could fairly be viewed as redundant, yet works like an electrifying cover band. With a wickedly sardonic Billy Bob Thornton ideally cast in the Walter Matthau role, the film plays like the progeny of Thornton's Bad Santa and Linklater's School Of Rock. A salty inappropriateness tempers the underlying sweetness of all three.
Taking little edge off his malevolent mall Santa routine, Thornton plays another belligerent drunk who speaks to young children with the same tone he uses on anyone else killing his buzz or aggravating his hangover. A former major league washout, Thornton decides to supplement his rodent extermination business by coaching a Little League team so hapless that it needed a court injunction to hit the field. A motley group of nerds, runts, ethnic outcasts, and the chronically uncoordinated, the Bears are bad players and even lousier sports, given to either defeated moping or nasty brawls. After last year's champions, coached by power dad Greg Kinnear, beat and taunt them mercilessly in the first game, Thornton and the players resolve to get better and exact some revenge, helped along by a couple of ringers: Thornton's estranged daughter (Sammi Kraft) and a hard-hitting juvenile delinquent (Jeff Davies).
Eventually, Bad News Bears has to go through the same paces as all underdog sports movies, with skills improved and opponents bested and lessons learned, though Linklater loads the requisite montages with funny little grace notes. But the film is at its sharpest in the early going, when neither Thornton nor the kids are anywhere close to enlightened and they spend profane afternoons in the sun, bickering and blundering around the diamond. School Of Rock announced Linklater as a gifted director of child actors, and the members of the young cast he's assembled here all emerge with distinct personalities that bounce off one another harmoniously. In their refusal to press too hard for laughs, Linklater and Thornton make a natural duo, both low-key Southerners high on ingratiating charm. They give no reason to reject a generous comedy like Bad News Bears, no matter how superfluous the project may seem.