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'Mean Machine,' Soccer's Version of 'Longest Yard'

Movies* A British remake of Burt Reynolds' 1974 football hit aims to be the first memorable film about the world's most popular sport.

February 22, 2002|ANDRE CHAUTARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Well-loved sports movies have been focused on everything from all-American pastimes like football and baseball to downhill skiing and even Jamaican bobsledders. Yet the world's most popular sport--soccer--has for the most part failed to score in the movies.

"Mean Machine," a rough-and-tumble British comedy opening Friday, aims to change this by becoming a memorable soccer film.

A remake of the crowd-pleasing 1974 Burt Reynolds gridiron hit "The Longest Yard," in which motley convicts challenge their guards to what devolves into a comically down-and-dirty game of football, "Mean Machine" recasts the setting to a gritty English prison and the bone-crushing sport played to soccer.

And where "The Longest Yard" had Reynolds, a former college football player whose promising career was cut short by injury, as its charismatic lead, "Mean Machine" has famed ex-professional soccer player Vinnie Jones, the husky scene-stealer from "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," stepping into his first leading role.

Although soccer-themed films are produced with regularity around the globe, Hollywood's few attempts at tackling the sport known to the rest of the world as football--from the ill-advised 1987 Pele vehicle "Hot Shot" to the broad family comedies "Ladybugs" (1992) and "The Big Green" (1995)--have been depressing, if noticed at all.

"Given the popularity of the sport worldwide, I don't think [soccer's] ever really been given its true credit from cinema," says "Mean Machine" director Barry Skolnick.

There were 1981's "Gregory's Girl," an idyllic British romance about a teenage boy smitten with the girl who replaces him on his soccer team, and 1978's "The Boys of Company C," a Vietnam War drama in which a team of Marines must choose between throwing a soccer match against a Vietnamese team and returning to the combat zone, though neither was an out-and-out sports film.

Hollywood's highest-profile attempt at a soccer film was the embarrassing 1981 Sylvester Stallone picture "Victory," in which a team of Allied World War II prisoners of war improbably use a propaganda match against a German team as a cover for escape.

Recent Soccer Films Not Distributed in U.S.

Despite the soccer play having been designed by Pele, who also played a supporting role, "it's one of those movies that kind of got cult status due to the very poor soccer involved and the fact that they probably gave too many British soccer players actual speaking parts," Skolnick says.

A number of recent British soccer-themed films, such as "Fever Pitch," "Mad About Mambo" and "The Match," haven't received significant theatrical distribution in the United States. "There's another movie which Sean Bean did called 'When Saturday Comes,' and they failed on the football action dreadfully," Skolnick says.

"The film goes along quite nicely until they start playing soccer, and then you think, 'I don't believe that.'" When the sports play doesn't look authentic, he says, the film not only loses credibility but the audience disengages emotionally.

With "Mean Machine," which is being released here by Paramount Classics, the filmmakers sought to break the so-called curse on soccer films. Says Jones, who also has appeared as a heavy in "Swordfish" and "Gone in 60 Seconds": "I said to [Skolnick], 'If I'm gonna do this, this has got to be the most believable football movie ever done,' and I think we've done that."

Producer Matthew Vaughn first had the idea of remaking "The Longest Yard," which in many ways is the prototypal sports comedy, after coming across it on television.

Vaughn, who produced Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock" and "Snatch," was looking to give Jones his first leading role and thought a soccer version of "The Longest Yard" would make the perfect vehicle for the former soccer player who became as famous for his off-the-field rowdiness (he once assaulted a neighbor) as for his on-the-field rough play (a notorious photograph showed him twisting an opposing player's testicles).

Jones seemed like a natural for the part of Danny "Mean Machine" Meehan, an ex-soccer player disgraced for having fixed matches and sentenced to prison for throwing drunken punches at policemen.

Danny is compelled by the warden to coach a team of convicts in a practice match against the semipro team of guardsmen, in which the convicts use every dirty trick (not) in the book, from head-butting to leg-stomping to injury-faking, all plays Jones admits he used in his days as an oft-ejected midfielder.

Being back on the green "was easy for me," says Jones, who figures he would be coaching had "Lock, Stock" not come along. "But I just wanted to do the acting. I just wanted to get in front of the camera." Overcoming skepticism that he could handle the dramatic aspects of a leading role, Jones has received decent notices in England, where the film has already been released.

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