Thursday, March 14, 2002

Instant replay

Movie: Mean Machine

Posted on Thu, Mar 14, 2002 at 4:00 AM

***1/2
Our Rating: 3.50

Chalk it up as one big, backhanded, trans-Atlantic compliment. Director Barry Skolnick's British remake of the 1974 stateside gridiron comedy "The Longest Yard" follows the original almost scene-for-scene and appropriates entire lines of its dialogue.

Yes, the action has been switched from U.S.A. to the U.K., and football replaced with football -- um, soccer. But most of the major plays remain the same: A dissipated former sports star (Vinnie Jones) tussles with the police and is sentenced to prison, where his shady career history (he once threw a crucial match) makes him persona non grata to the morally offended population of killers and thieves. Despite the odds, the reviled newcomer assembles a rag-tag group of convicts into a team of rule-shredding "sportsmen" that goes on to face the brutal guards in an athletic contest of wills.

Skolnick clearly (and correctly) saw in his source material a ready-made sop to the "Full Monty" and "Greenfingers" crowd, and the translation serves that demographic well. A tad bleaker and more bloody than "The Longest Yard" -- and with its non-Caucasian characters closer to the forefront -- "Mean Machine" retains an outlaw spirit that requires no extensive reshuffling. Though the aura of ultraviolent hooliganism that surrounds British football lessens the comedic impact of the inmates' bone-crunching tactics (the original film termed such plays "incidental punishment after the ball is blown dead"), there's just something about watching a squad of psychopathic underdogs whale the tar out of unsuspecting lawmen that reaches across time and distance.

The only major letdown, in fact, is Jones (a former footballer and star of the Guy Ritchie smash-em-ups "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch"). His morose and brooding Danny Meehan lacks the disarming knavery of Burt Reynolds' Paul Crewe, the aw-shucks toothiness that made the character's cheating ways seem not only defensible, but all-American. Skolnick should put a little more thought into duplicating that irresistible quality if he chooses to follow "Mean Machine" with a remake of "North Dallas Forty."

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