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[whitespace] 'Mean Machine'
Pitch Imperfect A prison soccer team takes on the guards in 'Mean Machine.'

Soccer Punches

'Mean Machine' fails to revive brutal charm of 'The Longest Yard'

By Don Hines

BRITISH AND AMERICAN football are as unlike as the Union Jack and Monterey Jack. So Mean Machine, a British remake of an American football film (1975's The Longest Yard, starring Burt Reynolds), loses much in transition across the Atlantic and back. The plot is unchanged: drunken reprobate athlete lands in prison, where he reclaims his manhood leading a football match against the guards. The difference is in the details. In Robert Aldrich's film, Reynolds played a gigolo ex-quarterback sent away for drunkenly dumping his girlfriend's Maserati into a canal. His indolence resembled a Joe Namath or Ken Stabler drained of all redeeming traits but his charm.

In Mean Machine, one Vinnie Jones plays the drunken ex-footballer. In the United States, Jones is known for bit parts as an enforcer in Gone in 60 Seconds and Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. In the U.K. he's infamous for wrenching the testes of 1990 World Cup star Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne (caught in a famous photograph). He was fined 20,000 English pounds for parlaying his reputation as a thug into Football's [soccer's] Hard Men, a video instructing aspiring cheap-shot artists how to maim opposing players. In short, Vinnie's a hard man, though he doesn't play one. He's also a better actor on the football pitch [field] (explaining to the ref, "I hardly touched him") than onscreen.

An inexpressive lead actor wouldn't matter if first-time director Barry Skolnick had come up with anything but clichéd characters. The wizened lifer (David Kelley of Waking Ned Devine) dispenses pat homilies in virtuous manner that he practically paints a "Guards' Tragic Victim" target on his back. As the psychotic mass murderer (who killed 23 people "before he went mad") recruited as goalkeeper, Jason Statham has moments of unpredictability. However, the actors look lively only in contrast with Jones' wooden demeanor. They're yet another collection of gruff but lovable lads stuck not in a tight plot but in a loose series of sketches, so they jolly well better make the best of it--call it The Full Monty treatment.

Skolnick reverently preserves the cartoon violence of The Longest Yard, as if in amber. But he sweetens some of the characters. Jones feels contrite over throwing a World Cup game against Germany. The prison's top criminal remonstrates, "In this place, you can hold up a bank, rob your old man, even kill a bloke, but sell your country in a game? It's un-bloody English." That's the problem with moving The Longest Yard from the football field to the soccer pitch. Mean Machine still posits the British notion that sports build character: "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton" and all that. In the United States, at least outside the South, sports and character vanished along with Frank Merriwell, All-American Boy. Besides, American football comprises two quintessentially American pastimes: violence and meetings. It's un-bloody English.

Mean Machine (R; 99 min.), directed by Barry Skolnick, written by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Charlie Fletcher, Chris Baker and Andrew Day, photographed by Alex Barber and starring Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham, opens Friday at the AMC Saratoga 14.

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From the February 28-March 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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