Robert Aldrich’s 1974 “The Longest Yard,” about a football match between teams of guards and convicts at a prison, is the acknowledged source for Barry Skolnick’s “Mean Machine,” which transposes the locale to England and the sport to British football, i.e., soccer. As such it also recalls John Huston’s 1981 debacle “Victory,” which portrayed a soccer match between Nazis and inmates in a German POW camp during World War II. And it further calls to mind last year’s overly sweet “Greenfingers,” in which a bunch of English cons roused themselves to emerge as a prize winning gardening club; that similarity is accentuated by the fact that in both pictures David Kelly plays essentially the same character–the elderly lifer who befriends the hero and whose fate is all but predetermined in a plot which needs tears as well as uplift. Clearly this basic narrative has been around a long while, and it’s therefore not much of a surprise that “Machine” boasts not a single moment that’s either fresh or credible; it’s just a rehash of material that’s been done to death several times before.
In this variant, Vinnie Jones, from Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” plays Danny Meehan, a former soccer star who once threw an important game and has descended into drunken anger. Convicted of beating up a couple of cops, he’s sent to a prison presided over by a warden (David Hemmings) whose great pride is his guards’ team, which he wants Meehan to take charge of. The stern head guard, Burton (Ralph Brown) wants to keep the coaching kob for himself, however, and so ultimately Meehan is persuaded by a wily con named “Massive” (Vas Blackwood) to suggest that the guards play a game against a team of prisoners to toughen them up. There are other wrinkles, including the warden’s penchant for gambling sums he can’t afford to lose based on tips from Sykes (John Forgeham), a big-time crook who pretty much controls the prison from the inside, and the participation of a distinctly unpredictable fellow (Jason Statham) as goaltender on the convict team. And needless to say, the other players serve as purportedly amusing types–the enthusiastic bumbler, the rotund foreigner, the initially surly but eventually supportive black dude, etc. There’s even (ever so briefly) a sultry secretary (Sally Phillips), the only girl in sight, who not only helps the cons with information on the guards’ weaknesses but comes on to Danny, too.
“Mean Machine” isn’t very well titled. The phrase is the nickname Danny once had as a player, and it’s transferred to his ad-hoc team; but the mood of the picture is basically light-hearted and easygoing, despite occasional (and overly graphic) burst of violence, as when the brutal guards take out after a prisoner like “Massive” or Meehan must endure a punching contest with Sykes’ best-muscled goon before the boss will agree to let his guys play in the match. To be honest, despite all the melodramatic twists the three scripters have built into their work, everything is totally predictable–both the characters and the episodes–and nothing has the faintest whiff of plausibility or imagination to it. The cast is energetic (sometimes too much so, as with Statham and supporting players like Danny Dyer as the uncoordinated Billy “the Limpet” and Stephen Walters as the crazed “Nitro”), but not terribly memorable or likable. Jones does the big lug bit adequately but no more, Kelly walks through his part as the old con inevitably called “Doc,” Forgeham plays the gruff gang boss by the book, and Brown is suitably snooty as Burton (though his rigid rectitude at the end is utterly unconvincing). As for veteran Hemmings, most of his performance seems concentrated in his impossibly long, carefully upturned eyebrows, which distract us from noticing how chubby the once svelte young star has become.
Determinedly mediocre, without a single element to make it stand out from the crowd (even John Murphy’s score, with snippets of the “Rocky” theme combined with chunks of “Night on Bald Mountain,” is a pastiche), “Mean Machine” is a thoroughly unnecessary movie.