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Salty talk peppers sluggish 'Bears' remake

Back in 1976, there were critics who panned the original ''Bad News Bears" because it relied on kids swearing to get laughs. Well, duh. Pitched with the right spin, a tyke letting fly with a juicy cuss can seem an honest admission of all the things we're not supposed to say -- shock value as truth telling.

But what was also a novelty 30 years ago is one more scrape across the senses in these coarser, yet oddly more prim times. And so we have an exceedingly faithful 21st-century remake of ''Bad News Bears" that amps up the verbal raunch while insisting that the young players of the worst Little League team in the San Fernando Valley are innocents at heart.

The result is a sort of junior version of ''Bad Santa," and not just because Billy Bob Thornton has been cast as coach Morris Buttermaker, the reprobate ex-major leaguer played by Walter Matthau in the original. Thornton is easily the best thing about the new ''Bears." Dangerous where Matthau was cuddly, his Buttermaker has nothing remotely lovable about him, and that's why we like him. But the remake is stranded between pushing the scatological envelope and caving in to the formulas the 1976 movie established, and until the well-nigh foolproof ending, it comes up gasping for air.

First off, you probably shouldn't take young children to this movie unless you want them coming out with friction burns on their ears. Our first sight of Buttermaker is in his day job as an exterminator, telling a client, ''No doubt about it, lady, you got a [expletive]-load of rats down there." Before hitting the field to take charge of the Bears -- he's been hired after uptight yuppie single mom Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden) has sued the league to let the cast-offs play -- the new coach empties out a can of nonalcoholic beer and fills it with bourbon. Scoping out a girls' softball team, Buttermaker murmurs, ''Look at the [expletive] on that second baseman." These are the more printable lines of dialogue. There are also shout-outs to Hooters and the pleasures of sleeping with players' mothers.

The kids, of course, are even saltier, especially pint-size thug Tanner (Timmy Deters) and oversize hulk Engelberg (Brandon Craggs). The rest of the team is a motley crew of space cadets (Tyler Patrick Jones), wheelchair kids (Troy Gentile), and hamhanded ethnic types (Indian, Armenian, Mexican). The setup is maximized for glorious political incorrectness -- and yet the movie just isn't funny. Thornton's mad-dog line readings are reliable for rude laughs, but that's about it, and in the yawning spaces between the jokes there's a sadness about the uncertain life these kids lead that the movie has no idea what to do with.

The director, sadly, is Richard Linklater, the Austin-based indie genius of ''Slacker" and ''Dazed and Confused" who proved with ''The School of Rock" that he could play the studio game better than the hacks. Where Jack Black's manic approach provided ''School" with a motor, though, Thornton's too sneering and laid-back -- he's funny but at the expense of narrative momentum.

The kids don't really pick up the slack. They're a cute but uncharismatic lot, especially Jeff Davies as Kelly Leak, the rebel teen with a power stroke. Sammi Kraft just mopes in the old Tatum O'Neal role of Amanda Whurlitzer, 12-year-old latchkey kid and fastball pitcher.

''Bad News Bears" still comes to life once she shows up, and the final game against the rival team led by preening suburban stud Ray Bullock (Greg Kinnear) sends you out on a decent high. Thornton plays it close enough to the vest that his transformation from win-at-all-costs jerk to caring coach is even believable, and that's gravy in a movie like this. But the question dogging ''Bears" remains unanswered. Not why was it made -- if the original is fun, it's no work of genius -- but who, exactly, is it for?

Ty Burr can be reached at

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