IN THE wonderful "Bad Santa," Billy Bob Thornton established himself as a lovable rogue, a storefront Santa Claus who hated Christmas and kids. In "Bad News Bears," which just happens to be co-scripted by the same writers (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa), he's a recycled version of the same persona. But so far, this shtick shows no signs of getting old. And it's the essential ingredient in this remake of the 1976 movie, in which Thornton's a beer-swilling misanthrope who turns a ragtag, trash-talking gang of kiddie misfits into Little League contenders.
As Coach Buttermaker, a former minor league pro, who played one part of an inning, he doesn't have a politically correct bone in his body. Which is why, when one of his pitches beans a kid on the head, he tells the boy he should be glad he was wearing a helmet. And when Buttermaker orders the team to run in at the double, he tells a kid in a wheelchair to put his wheelchair into fourth gear.
The movie, directed by Richard Linklater, is a faithful remake of the Tatum O'Neal-Walter Matthau classic of the same name, with only minor updates and changes to Bill Lancaster's original screenplay. In the 1976 version, Matthau's Buttermaker cleaned pools. Thornton's Buttermaker is an exterminator, who snaps up a couple of ringers, including the daughter (Sammi Kraft) of an old flame who has a powerful throwing arm, and Kelly Leak (Jeff Davies), a punk who can knock 'em out of the park anytime. The filmmakers have added Matthew Hooper (Troy Gentile), the aforementioned kid in the wheelchair; an Armenian called Garo (Jeffrey Tedmori); and an Indian kid, Prem (Aman Johal), who brings a laptop to the games. And this time, the African American (K.C. Harris) in the Bears digs Mark McGwire, not Hank Aaron.
If truth be told, the movie is dead without Thornton. The young actors aren't the most stellar thesps to swear their way through a film. And the plot, which involves the Bears going up against nasty Coach Bullock (Greg Kinnear) and his arrogant Yankees team, is trite. But you don't watch "Bad News Bears" for the action out on the diamond. You hang out with that hangdog coach so you can catch every slurry, sour-mouthed retort coming out of his mouth. Now that's color commentary.
BAD NEWS BEARS (PG-13, 111 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, a little baseball violence and adult boozing in front of children. Area theaters.