Mean Machine

on February 22, 2002 by Wade Major
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   Robert Aldrich's 1974 film “The Longest Yard,” in which a fallen football player is able to redeem himself during a prison stint by molding fellow inmates into a respectable team, is landmark achievement on several significant fronts, none of them especially artistic. For starters, it helped pioneer the “inspirational sports film” genre that has since become so enormously popular, paving the way for “Rocky” just two years later. And secondly, it furnished star Burt Reynolds with an unusually complex character that allowed him to call upon and showcase his own considerable football skills.

   Given the high concept premise, it was always inevitable that “The Longest Yard” would be remade. What could not have been foreseen is that it would be remade as an English soccer movie, much less one as delightfully energetic as “Mean Machine.”

   The brainchild of producer Matthew Vaughn (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”), “Mean Machine” not only parallels “The Longest Yard,” but betters it, adding more colorful characters, better dialogue and a few plot tweaks clearly designed to sate fans of such blue collar British feel-good movies as “The Full Monty” and “Billy Elliott.”

   Former soccer star Vinnie Jones, previously seen in both “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” plays Danny “Mean Machine” Meehan, a former national hero disgraced by accusations of match fixing who finds himself unceremoniously tossed in prison after a drunken tussle with police gets out of hand. His reputation, of course, precedes him, creating an unusual predicament when the warden (David Hemmings) solicits his help in training a semi-professional team comprised of the prison's guards. All too aware of the pitfalls associated with that kind of commitment, Meehan counteroffers to assemble and train a team of convicts to scrimmage with the guards, setting the stage for the climactic showdown in which the tables are appropriately turned and a different kind of jailhouse justice gleefully dispensed.

   First time director Barry Skolnick, a former star commercial helmer, is clearly more comfortable with the soccer scenes than anything else--when the camera and the players are on the field, the film soars and roars, powered by an indefatigable energy that even soccer detractors will find irresistible if not addictive. Ironically, it's the perfunctory sections of exposition that Skolnick doesn't handle so well. The actors do their jobs ably enough, and the script, by Chris Baker and Andy Day, is witty and well-conceived, but Skolnick never quite finds the same enthusiasm or creativity as he does when unleashed amid the clatter of thundering cleats.

   Despite its unevenness, “Mean Machine” does ultimately deliver on its promises, powering through the rough spots with nothing but sheer determination and an infectious resolve akin to that of Meehan's lovably ragtag footballers. It's not a perfect film, but it believes so passionately in its subject that one would be hard-pressed to focus too narrowly on the minutiae of its missteps.

   Some will also find amusing parallels to the similarly-themed “Greenfingers,” another recent independent UK production about prisoners finding redemption through the graces of gardening. While the leap from gardening to soccer may seem like stretch, both films follow surprisingly similar paths, even going so far as to cast several of the same supporting cast members--most notably David Kelly--in nearly identical roles.

   On its own merits, however, “Mean Machine” is still a winning crowd-pleaser with more than enough juice to crossover with fans of all stripes, regardless of whether they even know anything about soccer or not.    Starring Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham, Danny Dyer, David Kelly, David Hemmings, Vas Blackwood, Robbie Gee, John Forgeham, Andrew Grainger, Stephen Walters and Sally Phillips. Directed by Barry Skolnick. Written by Chris Baker and Andy Day. Produced by Matthew Vaughn. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Rated R for language and some violence. Running time: 99 min.

Tags: Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham, Danny Dyer, David Kelly, David Hemmings, Vas Blackwood, Robbie Gee, John Forgeham, Andrew Grainger, Stephen Walters, Sally Phillips, Directed by Barry Skolnick, Written by Chris Baker, Andy Day, Produced by Matthew Vaughn, A Paramount Classics release, Drama, independent, prisoners, gardening, soccer, energy
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