"The Longest Yard," Burt Reynolds' testosterone-charged 1974 movie about prison football, seems an unlikely candidate for a remake - let alone a British remake.
But Reynolds' magnetic antihero and the climatic football game against prison guards (shown, in part, in an edgy horizontal split screen) have held up well over the years on cable, so perhaps freshman director Barry Skolnick deserves a nod for recognizing a diamond in the rough.
For U.K. audiences, though, football get swapped for soccer, and the title gets changed to "Mean Machine." Under executive producer Guy Ritchie, Skolnick casts his movie almost entirely with Ritchie alums from "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" - a move that in hindsight proves slightly distracting.
Headliner Vinnie Jones steps into Reynolds' former role as Danny "Mean Machine" Meehan, a reckless, fallen-from-grace pro accused of point shaving who now finds himself in prison after drunkenly assaulting police officers. Caught in an internal prison power struggle when asked to coach the prison's guard team, Danny proposes an exhibition between the guards and the inmates.
Jones glides on sheer charisma, while Jason Statham goes against type as Monk, a psychopathic mass murderer and goalie. Audiences will spend time trying to place other Ritchie players (among them Jason Flemyng, Robbie Gee, Vas Blackwood, Jake Abraham and Adam Fogerty) in their previous roles. If you haven't been counting, that's seven actors from Ritchie's camp. Casting aside, "Mean Machine" holds its ground as a mid-budget Hollywood knockoff.
Sports movies are never easy to pull off, but Skolnick does a fine job of balancing the drama with the on-field action. Gone are the split screens featured in the original, as Skolnick uses a pop soundtrack to set the mood and carry the action. He switches tones too quickly before letting the previous dramatic mini-arch settle in, but his actors seem to be enjoying themselves, and they draw attention away from any technical gaffs.
"Mean Machine," despite its theme of underdog glory, seems uncomfortable with the fact that its heroes are dangerous criminals. An attempt at reconciling the thematic friction comes from old timer Doc (David Kelly of "Waking Ned Devine"), who reminds Danny that even though he's a harmless codger now, he killed an entire family in his youth - but really, he didn't mean it and is a good guy at heart.
Skolnick would have better served his film if he hadn't juggled comic and dramatic set pieces. These are bad guys we're supposed to root for. He seems to know this instinctively when Monk's violent fantasies are played for laughs in a dream sequence during the game. Statham knows he's an inmate caricature in a prison movie, and so does the audience. That the director reminds us of this fact serves as another unnecessary distraction.
2 1/2 stars
Directed by Barry Skolnick; screenplay by Charlie Fletcher and Chris Baker & Andrew Day; based on the film "The Longest Yard"; produced by Matthew Vaughn; photographed by Alex Barber; edited by Eddie Hamilton and Dayn Williams; production design by Russell De Rozario. A Paramount Classics release; opens Friday, March 1. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: R (language and some violence). Danny - Vinnie Jones
Doc - David Kelly
Governor - David Hemmings
Burton - Ralph Brown
Massive - Vas Blackwood Monk - Jason Statham
Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun