Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard gave Burt Reynolds one of his signature roles, and this smart remake may help propel British soccer favorite Vinnie Jones to stardom. He brings a glowering, aggrieved intensity to his portrayal of a disgraced pro footballer, and gives Mean Machine more depth and dignity than its genre requires. The filmmakers changed the setting of the story from the United States to Great Britain, and the sport from football to soccer. But the end result is still a brutal, macho comedy about a no-holds-barred match between a ragtag team of convicts and a semi-professional team manned with prison guards.
One-time soccer star Danny Meehan (Jones) is serving a three-year sentence for drunk driving at Longmarch Prison. Despised by his fellow convicts for throwing a championship match, Meehan is hated just as much by jealous guards. The Governor (David Hemmings), or warden, owns his own semi-pro soccer team. He's also deeply in debt, and needs a quick score to pay off a murderous bookie. He thinks Meehan can help his team, but that would mean replacing Burton (Ralph Brown), the current coach and also supervisor of the guards. Caught between the two, Meehan also faces periodic beatings from goons led by Sykes (John Forgeham), a mobster who lost a fortune betting on him.
Meehan offers to build and coach a team of convicts who will play against the guards, giving both Sykes and the Governor a chance to wager huge sums on the outcome. But the other cons won't cooperate until Meehan defends his black friend Massive (Vas Blackwood) from Ratchett (Geoff Bell), a racist guard. With the team finally filling out, Meehan persuades Monk (Jason Statham), who is reputed to have killed 22 people with his bare hands, to play goalkeeper.
The psychotic Nitro (Stephen Walters) tries to sabotage the cons' team, even as Tracey (Sally Phillips), the Governor's sexy secretary, is slipping Meehan the guards' team's game plan. Doc (David Kelly), a mild-mannered lifer, ends up showing the inmates how much is really at stake in the game.
The final grudge match is a half-hour of bone-crunching stunts that deliver laughs without doing much with the script's many storylines. But if the plot takes few chances, Mean Machine more than meets its pulp goals. With a churning score, quick pacing and no-nonsense acting, the film is brash but not obnoxious. Hemmings gives a snarling performance as a pit bull of a warden, while Forgeham is quietly menacing as the real power in the prison. But it's Jones, relying more on heart than irony to push across his role, who anchors Mean Machine, a polished and relatively sincere piece of escapism.