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Mean Machine

(2002) * R
98 min. Paramount. Director: Barry Skolnick. Cast: Vinnie Jones, David Blake Kelly, David Hemmings, Ralph Brown, Vas Blackwood.

Being rushed into U.S. release for no apparent reason (perhaps for some arcane tax purposes), Mean Machine lacks the benefit of a big promotional push. Presumably its audience--of die-hard Vinnie Jones fanatics--will find it anyway. But anyone who doesn't watch Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch on a continuous rotation will probably want to skip this tired hybrid of the British gangster, sport, and dog-has-his-day genres.

Unlike those other Jones films, this one is not directed by Guy Ritchie. However, he and partner Michael Vaughn are among the producers, and regular actors Jones, Jason Statham, and Jason Fleming appear. Unfortunately, first-time director Barry Skolnick's at the helm, making Ritchie look quite the auteur.

Mean Machine is an acknowledged remake of The Longest Yard, Burt Reynolds' 1974 prison football epic (known as The Mean Machine in the U.K.). Like a jersey that's been washed a few times too often, the story has lost its color, though the football players have become "footballers" in the European sense. Other than that obvious change, Mean Machine is pokey at best and painful at worst, though British audiences were likely a bit more forgiving when it opened there in December of 2001.

Jones plays Danny Meehan, a confused bloke whose self-destructive tendencies apparently stem from his guilt over throwing a match. Caught in the opening moments of the film drunk driving and assaulting officers, Meehan is quickly jailed and slowly appointed soccer coach to a misfit crew of prisoners who swear and fight just slightly more than the Bad News Bears. Meehan's emotional conflict and dark self-hatred conveniently hibernate until they are needed again(which just underlines Jones's acting limitations); meantime, a dramatic score (you'd think it was the freaking Green Mile) and Jones' puppy-dog expression conspire to get your sympathy for the latest inmate. Don't worry--he can take care of himself.

After laboriously stacking up rote scenes of plot development (mostly establishing villainous prison officials like David Hemmings' pointy-eyebrowed Governor) and eye-rolling attempts at character development (especially the sob story of ol' Waking Ned Devine star David Kelly), Skolnick does eventually get down to business with some actual football play. He acquits himself admirably with this choreography, and Jones, a one-time world class soccer player, also earns his keep. Arguably, though, the best performance in the film comes from the boom mike, which sure knows how to steal a scene.

Testosterone-powered and pop-music-littered, Mean Machine lacks the requisite investment for its inevitable cheery payoff, since Skolnick can't muster a convincing, involving, tense or funny scene. He does, however, know enough to make liberal (downright extremist) use of slo-mo. Cheers!

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