Friday, March 21, 2014

#1,313. The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)

Directed By: Michael Pressman

Starring: William Devane, Jackie Earle Haley, Clifton James

Tag line: "The Bad News Bears are one year older and one year wilder"

Trivia: Brett Marx, who plays Jimmy, is the grandson of Gummo Marx, a brother of the Marx Brothers

Walter Matthau is out. So is Tatum O’Neal. With the two main stars of The Bad News Bears, Michael Ritchie’s 1976 box-office hit, failing to return for the sequel, 1977’s The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training instead throws the spotlight on the team itself, with decidedly mixed results.

Thanks to their championship run the year before, the Bears, the pride of the North Valley Little League, are invited to play an exhibition game at the Houston Astrodome, where they’ll face off against the undefeated local team, the Toros. The winner will then travel to Japan for yet another big game, but before the Bears can even think about getting their passports in order, they have to find a new coach. Having driven away Buttermaker’s replacement, the hard-nosed Coach Manning (Dolph Sweet), the kids turns to their star player, Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle-Haley), for advice. After recruiting a new pitcher, Carmen Ronzonni (Jimmy Baio), Kelly “borrows” a van and personally drives the team from California to Texas. Once in Houston, Kelly pays a visit to his estranged father, Mike (William Devane), who he hasn’t seen in eight years. With the Bears still in need of a coach, he convinces his dad to take the position, but can Kelly put aside the anger he feels towards his old man long enough to win the big game?

Most of the young actors from The Bad News Bears are back for the sequel, with only the role of the portly catcher, Englebert, being re-cast (Supposedly, Gary Lee Cavagnaro, who played Englebert in The Bad News Bears, lost a bunch of weight right after making that film, leaving the producers with no choice but to recruit a new young actor, Jeffrey Louis Starr, for the part). Some of the kids get a chance to expand their characters this time around. The foul-mouthed Tanner (Chris Barnes) has become good friends with Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith), the awkward teammate who made a game-saving catch in the championship against the Yankees. Because Lupus has a broken leg, he can’t make the trip to Houston, so Tanner keeps him informed of what’s going on with a steady stream of postcards from the road (after seeing Knute Rockne All American one night on TV, Tanner also decides to dedicate the Houston game to the injured Lupus, who he starts calling “The Big Looper”). As the new pitcher, Jimmy Baio’s Carmen has plenty of personality (even if his baseball skills are somewhat suspect), and once in Houston, we learn a little more about Kelly’s past when he goes to meet his father, who, after almost a decade, doesn’t recognize him.

The problem, though, is that the first half of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, when the team is driving to Texas, is far too unfocused, and without an adult to play off of, many of the jokes fall flat. The movie also seems to forget that, by the end of The Bad News Bears, the Bears were actually playing well. During a stop-over in New Mexico, the team is challenged to a sandlot scrimmage, where they commit dozens of errors, as if they all suddenly forgot how to play baseball. Sure, most of the problem is with Carmen, who can’t find the plate, but that doesn’t explain why Tanner, Ahmad (Erin Blunt) and Toby (David Stambaugh) can’t catch a ball to save their lives.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training does improve with the addition of William Devane, who’s convincing as both the team’s new coach, giving the kids valuable pointers to improve their play, and the imperfect father that abandoned his family years ago, leaving 5-year-old Kelly with nothing but a blue bike to remember him. Devane’s understated performance, combined with the film’s best sequence: the big game in the Astrodome, snatches The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training from the jaws of mediocrity, and does so without a moment to spare.

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