- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

The 1974 rabble-rouser "The Longest Yard," directed by the late Robert Aldrich, helped pave the way for Burt Reynolds' prolonged tenure as a box-office favorite in the late 1970s.

Cast as a former National Football League quarterback sentenced to prison, Mr. Reynolds was encouraged to redeem himself by leading a squad of inmates to victory in a no-holds-barred contest against a team of guards.

The inmates were nicknamed "Mean Machine," and both teams had reason to resent the corrupt manipulator behind the whole exhibition, a warden played by Eddie Albert, exposed and disgraced in the immediate aftermath of the game.

The nickname has now been adopted as the title of a culturally and athletically revamped update, set in England and designed to boost the film career of Vinnie Jones, a former soccer star who began to make diverting monolithic impressions in tough-guy roles when cast as a scowling, avenging terminator called Big Chris in the 1998 crime spectacle-satire "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels."

The film's producer, Matthew Vaughn, and writer-director Guy Ritchie, later celebrated as Madonna's consort, made certain to find a spot for Mr. Jones in the follow-up crime spoof "Snatch."

They also have a vested interest in "Mean Machine," although the repeatedly incoherent, scattershot direction was entrusted to a newcomer from the ranks of advertising, Barry Skolnick, evidently primed to go manic every few minutes with shouting matches or punch outs or something of an arbitrarily combustible nature.

The imprisoned hero, who has squandered his status as an elite midfielder, acquires a name with a punning resemblance to the title: Danny Meehan.

The plot outline remains identical: a crooked warden called only "The Governor," played by the bulging David Hemmings, contrives to exploit Meehan in an intramural game that will accommodate some gambling profit. The guv is up to his flyaway eyebrows in gambling debts. After stewing in solitary confinement for a while, Meehan agrees to cooperate and organizes a pickup team of fellow inmates.

The ensuing 3-2 cliffhanger illustrates one of the conspicuous differences between prototype and remake: fewer points on the scoreboard. Also fewer opportunities for astonishing trick plays and thunderous body contact, although the latter is not totally minimized by the soccer context.

But the change of location and sport may confine moviegoing enthusiasm to countries in which soccer is a bigger draw than American football.

If there were fresh elements of human interest in "Mean Machine," they went over my head or in one throbbing ear and out the other.

"The Longest Yard" itself was a thinly veiled remake. The definitive Aldrich hit for masculine moviegoers had been "The Dirty Dozen," which showcased Lee Marvin as a hard-as-nails Army officer in World War II who proposed to take a bunch of castoffs and psychos from the brig and turn them into a crack commando unit, trained to exterminate German officers and their guests during a party at a deathtrap chateau.

One of the more unsavory movies in Hollywood history, it also ended Jim Brown's pro career prematurely by persuading him that movies were a more lucrative gig than football.

The trick for the Vinnie Jones braintrust is probably to remake Lee Marvin titles for a Cockney tower of strength. They missed an obvious bet when "Point Blank" was remade as "Payback" with Mel Gibson, but the inventory is far from exhausted.

Why not a London-based update of the vintage Marvin TV series "M Squad," which was set in Chicago in the late 1950s? Urban variations of the Westerns "Cat Ballou" and "The Professionals" ought to be feasible.

And, lest we forget, Mr. Marvin was a crony of Sam Peckinpah at one time and passed up the William Holden role in "The Wild Bunch."

The Burt Reynolds backlog doesn't look that promising for Mr. Jones. If there's a Yank role model he ought to shoot for, Mr. Marvin is the guy.

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