Kelly Leak: The Coolest Kid Who Ever Lived

The following is excerpted from Josh Wilker's book about The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, written for Soft Skull Press's Deep Focus series.

* * *

Kelly Leak: The Coolest Kid Who Ever Lived

he Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, a 1977 sequel that I loved at first sight as a nine-year-old as much as I've ever loved any movie, is sprinkled with subtly unsettling fuckups. It was cheaply and quickly made. Unimportant objects appear and disappear unaccountably. East is west, dusk is dawn. Shadows of camera equipment and boom mikes flicker in and out of one scene and a muffled, disembodied voice bleeds into another. The away team is the home team. The home team is the away team. Rules are blurred, batting orders jumbled. Upon close inspection, the movie begins to resemble a dream in the mind of a sleeper on the edge of waking: All these clues about the falseness of the imaginary world begin to impose themselves, yet the dream persists, an unraveling wonder.

Something is always pulling me out of one world and into another. I want to keep dreaming, and if I can't do that, if I have to wake, I want at least to remember everything from the vanishing world of my dreams all the way down to the smallest mistakes.

* * *

"You talkin' 'bout Kelly Leak? That dude is a bad mutha."
— Ahmad Abdul Rahim, The Bad News Bears (1976)

"You talkin' to me?"
— Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)

"You talkin' to me?"
— Kelly Leak, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)

It all depends on Kelly Leak. For the story to go on, he will have to arrive. And he will have to be more than what he was in the first movie. In that incarnation, he was important but marginal, a juvenile delinquent coaxed into uniform to carry the Bears' otherwise anemic offensive attack while also solidifying the team's status as a gathering of rejects and throwaways. He was tough but runty and a little weird-looking, his head too big for his body, his plastered-down side-parted hair dull, uncharismatic. He was "a bad mutha" in that first incarnation, but for the Bears to survive in their diminished, sequelized state, he will have to become the coolest kid who ever lived.

* * *

Kelly Leak: The Coolest Kid Who Ever Lived

There was a Kelly Leak in every town, and in every grade. Or versions of Kelly Leak, echoes of the prototype, but still figures of awe. The one in my grade, Mike, had a white coral choker necklace kind of like Kelly's and hung out with older kids and had dominion over mechanized things-not only minibikes and snowmobiles but even, somehow, knowing how to drive. He partied.

There were older versions of Kelly Leak, too. There was one a few grades ahead of me, a quiet guy with shoulder-length feathered hair who I once heard talking about "getting fucked up." I didn't know what this meant but it seemed like the most mysterious, dangerous, and coolest thing ever. This guy, Kevin, had a reputation for being the baddest motherfucker in the school, but he was almost gentle in his bearing, never bullying anyone, as the lesser tough guys did. People just knew to give him respect.

These characters were often among the best athletes when they were kids but gave it up as soon as they hit puberty and started partying. This seems to be the stage Kelly Leak has arrived at by the second Bears movie, judging from his longer hair (now parted in the middle and faintly feathered) and his new, more grown-up, hippie-inflected wardrobe. He has augmented the bead necklace and shades seen in the first movie with jeans that have more of a bell-bottom billow to their cuffs and a fringed suede leather jacket that suggests glancing cosmic kinships with the mysterious Noble Indian and the psychedelic hippie adventurer.

He looks like someone much more likely to reach for a smoldering one-hitter down under the bridge than for a baseball on a well-mown little league diamond. Also, his aloofness from the other boys seems deeper now, more authentic. In the first movie, he haunted the margins of the Bears universe, telegraphing through his surface toughness and apathy that he was really aching to be let into the little boy world. In the sequel, from the start, he seems to have grown older, changing from something like the local Kelly Leak of my grade, Mike, into the older, quieter, cooler local Kelly Leak, Kevin. But beyond merely being someone likely to be overheard talking about "getting fucked up," Kelly Leak in the sequel seems to have transcended his earlier persona as a runty tough kid to become a version of the primordial American hero: He Who Stands Alone.

In American mythology, the hero stands alone until called reluctantly from solitude to action. Kelly Leak was like the Kelly Leaks in every town, but he was also like Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name or Billy Jack or Kwai Chang Caine. Even Fonzie avoided the shenanigans of the gang on Happy Days until the need arose for him to materialize and make everything all right. Being cool means being tough and able and strong and apart, but being an American hero depends on some greater need from the culture as well as some yearning for connection in the heart of the cool.

* * *

I picture Kelly Leak before his arrival onscreen in the sequel, riding his motorcycle up and down all the roads of his California town. An in-between feeling hangs in the air. One story has ended; the next has yet to begin. Can there be another?

He could go anywhere. He could do anything. Hustle some pool, maybe. Or ride by the house of a pretty girl and rev his engine until she appears in her bedroom window and smiles.

But it seems like it's all been done a million times, life a rerun, a rehash sequel. He isn't in the mood. He isn't in the mood for anything. He sure as hell isn't in the mood for baseball.

And yet, as he rides, he finds himself wondering about those turkeys in their little yellow caps.

* * *

Kelly Leak: The Coolest Kid Who Ever Lived

When I first saw Kelly Leak appear on screen, I associated him with the hairy motorcycle-riding hippies on an album cover in my parents' collection, The James Gang Rides Again. In subsequent years I came to notice that he was dressed very much like Dennis Hopper's character in Easy Rider while projecting the charismatic outsider-as-leading-man aura of Peter Fonda's character in the very same epochal film, a synthesis that hints at the ability of the sequelized version of Kelly Leak to embody an abundance of American roads.

This reaching for iconic status in the person of Kelly Leak was embedded in the script. Later in the film, a description by a teammate of Kelly as "the last lone eagle" is illustrated by a comparison to James Dean. But the apparent intentions of the filmmakers are actually exceeded, thanks in part to the abilities of Jackie Earle Haley, the actor playing Kelly Leak, and to Haley's physical idiosyncrasies. Unlike the undying classic Olympian beauty of James Dean's visage, Haley's face is wholly mortal, vaguely pocked and cratered, his teeth crooked, his blue eyes a little too narrow, his shoulder-length hair lank and seemingly in need of a wash. But this is what cool guys looked like in the 1970s, and Haley's Kelly Leak belongs to that awkward, homely decade. More significantly, Haley's ability to project a confident, wise, able, magnetically troubled presence allows the central figure of the sequel to transcend the times. The sequelized Kelly, if framed differently in the script or portrayed less ably by the actor, could have been a laughable mutation of transitory 1970s fads, a CB enthusiast in rainbow suspenders, a streaker with a perm, a disco-dancing primal screamer hawking pet rocks. Instead the lost, scattershot era's inevitable collision of influences produced an elemental American hero.

In the moment just before Kelly's arrival, the Bears' militaristic new coach is in the middle of rage-scrawling the word "discipline" on the chalkboard, surely the prelude to another bellowed lecture on the need for the Bears to become a depersonalized machine. He stops writing in mid-word at the sound of the approaching motorcycle.

"Discipl," the chalkboard reads.

The very idea of discipline thusly imperiled, the coach tries to bring Kelly under his control by shouting at him, but Kelly revs the engine of his motorcycle to drown out the words.

"You talkin' to me?" he yells back at the coach.

Kelly Leak: The Coolest Kid Who Ever Lived

This exact phrase had been uttered the previous year by Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver, an artistic high point of the three stellar Hollywood careers of lead actor De Niro, director Martin Scorsese, and screenwriter Paul Schrader. In Taxi Driver, the phrase had been uttered by Bickle as he stared at himself in a mirror, imagining confrontations, one of the most memorable moments in the history of American film and, eventually, the most iconic moment of a movie that would, after some years in which it was too raw to exist inside any traditional critical canons, take its place among the greatest films ever made. The phrase from the profoundly lonely and troubled Bickle was both menacing and impotent, a desperate and perverse plea for connection of any kind, even violent and vengeful. Kelly Leak hijacks the phrase and tames it, making it a part of a monochromatic, unambiguous rebellion.

If this easily digestible Happy Meal cheeseburger of rebellion were the only component in Kelly's sequelized persona, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training may have long ago faded from my mind as just one in an extensive string of wolfed-down fast food offerings, taking its place alongside Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo and Freaky Friday and Goin' Coconuts. But the channeling of Travis Bickle by Kelly Leak, however decontextualized and declawed, speaks to Kelly Leak's transformation from the singular tough kid of the original into a character who has become in his appearance and abilities and demeanor and deeds an almost mystical gathering point for all manner of hero and antihero imagery from the deepest veins of American mythology.

For example, after taunting the coach he begins to menace him by darting at and away from him with expert motorcycle stunting. The stunts suggest an advancement in Kelly's riding from the first film (in which his on-field motorbike ride ended in a moment of laudably anticlimactic realism, Kelly crashing awkwardly into an outfield wall) to a level bordering on the superpowered. This kind of borderline hyperreal mastery would naturally appeal to a comic book–saturated target audience, but the deeper hook in Kelly's expert wheelies is in how they add some shadings to Kelly of a wildly popular figure of the time, daredevil Evel Knievel, who himself was bringing the American love of risky, record-breaking stunts and pageantry to an explosively colorful apex.

Coach Manning might have had a chance against the Kelly Leak of the first movie, but what chance does he have against (among a litany of others) Evel Knievel, the grizzly, heavy-lidded stars of 1970s rock, Travis Bickle, James Dean, the iconoclastic hippies of Easy Rider, and every local teenage cool guy with shoulder-length feathered hair and a predilection for "getting fucked up"? Now the Bears, freed from discipline by this dense concentration of heroic American cool, cheer and flee. Now the coach roars, but stripped of the illusion of authority he's empty, powerless.

Now Kelly Leak rules.

Kelly Leak: The Coolest Kid Who Ever Lived

Josh Wilker's The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, part of Soft Skull Press's Deep Focus series, is available on Amazon. His last book, Cardboard Gods, was also excerpted on Deadspin.