Inside for 3 years, outside for 90 minutes.
A note to our non-North American readers: throughout this review I will be using the term "soccer" because, well, I'm American and as far as I'm concerned the term "football" refers to an entirely different game. Just know that I do understand what football means to the rest of the world. In other words, please don't write to educate me.
Your cooperation is appreciated.
Facts of the Case
In this sports flick from the production team behind the Guy Ritchie-directed Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, disgraced soccer star Danny "Mean Machine" Meehan ends up in jail for drunken assault and finds himself caught up in the meaner machine of prison politics. In order to survive he must find a way to stay in the good graces of an imprisoned crimeboss who lost money on a professional game thrown by Danny and now feels the athlete owes him, a debt-ridden prison governor who needs him to make a winner of the prison guards' soccer team, straight-laced warden Burton (Ralph Brown, who played Ric Olié in Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace) who has no desire to give up his position as the team's current coach, and fellow inmates who fawn over his fame and are resentful of his wasted potential.
Meehan buys himself time by orchestrating a match between Burton's guards and a team of inmates he selects and coaches himself. But it quickly becomes apparent he's caught between the proverbial rock and hard place: winning the game will invoke the wrath of the prison's governor, and throwing the game will double-cross the crimeboss. Danny must now decide how much he values his personal integrity, not to mention the respect and loyalty of his fellow inmates.
Does that plot synopsis sound familiar? Most reviews of Mean Machine focus on its similarity to the 1974 Burt Reynolds prison-football flick The Longest Yard, some toss in comparisons to the 1981 Michael Caine/Sylvester Stalone POW camp-soccer flick Victory. While I'd like to be different, Mean Machine isn't just similar to The Longest Yard, it's a remake. It's been years since I've watched The Longest Yard, but I still felt just about every moment of Mean Machine was oddly familiar. To be fair, the filmmakers aren't trying to hide the fact their movie is a remake. They credit Tracy Keenan Wynn (who wrote the script for the 1974 film) as a screenwriter, along with Charlie Fletcher who updated it for the 21st century. As a matter of fact, The Longest Yard was titled The Mean Machine in its UK theatrical release.
Comparisons to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and The Longest Yard dominate the disc's cover art (not to mention a huge, bold-font quote from a critic at New York Magazine that says: "…The Longest Yard gets The Full Monty treatment," which made me worry about the possible presence of fat, naked men, but apparently "The Full Monty treatment" describes the act of populating a film with lower middle-class British dudes). Oddly enough, the film both benefits and suffers from its direct association with the films above. Because it follows The Longest Yard's template, it has more fully realized, less cartoonish characters than Lock, Stock or Snatch. At least some of the main characters, like Meehan, the cons' team manager "Massive," and Burton, the prison warden, are more than cartoons. Most of the rest of the cast, though, is just this side of Elmer Fudd. On the other hand, while it has tastes of the visual style of Lock, Stock or Snatch, it's not nearly as relentlessly frenetic and fun to watch. What it does have is the other films' postmodern wink, that tendency to repeatedly acknowledge itself as film. While funny at times, it also becomes tedious, and causes the movie to lose some of the earnestness responsible for a good deal of The Longest Yard's charm. A good example is the play-by-play provided by two cons during the big game that comprises the final third of the film. Here it's used, as it always has been, to keep the viewer engaged in what's happening, ensuring we understand what we're seeing, but it's simultaneously played as a parody of the sports film voice-over play-by-play convention itself. It's alternately funny and tiresome; the game runs about 30 minutes, which is far too long for the joke to sustain itself. But what else could the filmmakers have done? The play-by-play in these sorts of films has a very practical function, but it's become such a cliché that it's difficult to play it without irony. It's things like this that make daunting work of remaking a 28-year-old film that's already had many imitators.
So, what am I saying? Did I like the movie? Did I dislike it? Yes…no…I don't know! It was okay. The disc's cover art is probably right on the money here: if you like Snatch and the The Longest Yard (which I do), you'll probably have a decent time with Mean Machine. Like me, however, you're probably not going to like it as much as either of those two films. Do I think I wasted 99 minutes of my life watching this movie? No. Will I ever watch it again? Not likely.
Paramount has brought Mean Machine to DVD in beautiful fashion. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is nearly perfect, displaying deep blacks, solid colors, and natural flesh-tones. There's no edge-enhancement. The only flaws I noticed were minor and infrequent instances of dirt on the source print. The flick looks excellent.
The film's sound design is both natural and aggressive in terms of ambient noise and music, just as we'd expect from the makers of Snatch, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround tracks do it justice. Surrounds are used almost constantly, but with very little panning. My only complaint is that the volume level of some dialogue could have been increased. The DVD has two 5.1 tracks, one for the North American theatrical release, and one for the UK theatrical release. They're equally impressive in terms of quality and almost indistinguishable. The North American track simply replaces some of the U.K.-specific slang with more general vernacular (for example, "nipper" in the UK version becomes "kid" in the North American version). Subtitles, by the way, adhere to the North American soundtrack.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie's biggest asset is Vinnie Jones, who played Big Chris in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Bullet Tooth Tony in Snatch. This is easily the finest I've seen him work as an actor. He's required to carry this film as a leading man, and he does so with ease and grace. Granted he's a former soccer star turned movie hooligan playing a former soccer star turned real hooligan, but he wears this role like a tailored suit and it's fun to watch.
I hate to plagiarize from myself, but my ruling on this one is going to be the same as my rulings for other Paramount titles brought before my bench (Sidewalks Of New York, for example). List price on Mean Machine is $29.99. You can find it from various web or brick-and-mortar retailers for anywhere between $19.99 and $25.49. It's difficult to recommend the movie even at the lowest price. While the disc has a beautiful transfer and excellent sound, there's not a single extra, not even a trailer. Twenty bucks is just a bit steep.
Paramount is guilty, once again, of price gouging. They're lucky we don't have a three-strikes-and-you're-out law around here.
Being nothing more and nothing less than innocent fun, Mean Machine is found not guilty.
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