Two decades ago Burt Reynolds made a mark with The Longest Yard a not great but entertaining football movie that melded comedy with violence. Mean Machine attempts to do the same but with far less success. “Mean Machine” is the nickname of Danny Meehan (Vinnie Jones from Guy Ritchie‘s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) a onetime soccer star turned reprobate drunk who fell from grace when he intentionally threw a major international match. After he beats up a couple of cops in a drunken rage Danny’s given a three-year sentence in one of England’s toughest prisons. There he meets your standard garden-variety group of inmates: the big-time crook who runs the place the wise old lifer the jolly bumbler the wily con the grouchy black inmate whose respect must be earned a sadistic and dishonest lot of jailers–the list goes on. The corrupt prison head (David Hemmings) wants Danny to take charge of the guards’ soccer team and get them ready for the upcoming season; knowing that’s the wrong side to be on in this lockup Danny suggests he organize the inmates for a match against the guards. (A footnote: Can ya guess what they dub their team? Yep Mean Machine). What follows is an all-too-predictable tale in which Danny must win over the prisoners to create a united team the Mean Machine must succeed by a hair in the Big Match and Danny must travel the road to moral self-improvement.
However much Vinnie Jones is liked for his roles in various Guy Ritchie films he ought to think about what he can do to break out of the grim tough-limey bit especially when he’s required to do a little real acting. His Danny is supposed to be something of a thinker with more going on behind his dour demeanor. Featuring pretty much two expressions throughout the movie dour and dourer there’s not much to Vinnie’s performance. (At least Burt Reynolds had some charisma.) If it feels like we’ve seen all these guys playing the same characters in other recent movies it’s because we have. Since the idea of doing this remake came from Matthew Vaughn producer of numerous Ritchie movies the usual Brit suspects reappear along with Jones: Snatch‘s Jason Statham as a wild and crazy prisoner-turned-goalie Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels‘ Jason Flemyng as the inmate who provides most of the movie’s laughs and Lock‘s Vas Blackwood as Danny’s right-hand man. Nobody stands out nobody steals the show–unless it’s Hemmings’ silver handlebar-lookin’ eyebrows that are so long they seem to reach for the sky in every scene. (Ralph Brown though is quite effective as the underhanded head warden.)
The problem with this movie in addition to the clichéd characters rote story and mediocre performances is that soccer inherently isn’t as violent and interesting to American audiences as our much more familiar sport of football. There’s just something about a bunch of massive glowering linebackers brutally crunching helmets during a scrimmage or taking down a running back in a punishing tackle that you just don’t get out of a soccer movie no matter how aggressive and dramatic you try to make it. Director Barry Skolnick throws in a couple of overly violent moments during the movie to make up for this but relies on a lot of slo-mo as the players dribble down the field and go for goals during the big showdown between the inmates and the guards. Yawn. Skolnick tried to capture the essence of a Guy Ritchie movie–herky-jerky camerawork edgy stylistics–but somehow it still feels rote and uninspired. However the film does give you a terrific sense of the isolation and dank dreariness of prison life (Machine was filmed in one of England’s oldest prisons).