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

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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.

Skolnick, a noted director of sports commercials, caught producer Vaughn's eye with a flashy, rapid-cut soccer ad for Nike that captured the excitement of the sport. In directing his first feature, Skolnick, bucking a trend in sports movies, mandated that no doubles be used for the actors in any of the game play.

"I think audiences today, [especially] young audiences, are so visually literate," he says. "You can't really fool them by cutting from an actor's head to someone else's body."

Soccer Skills Tested in 30-Minute Exam

Determined to cast actors who could play the game convincingly, Skolnick hired a professional coach and ex-teammate of Jones, Wally Downes, to test the actors' soccer skills in a 30-minute exam, and only those who made the cut could then audition. Jones also recruited some retired soccer pals to play on the guards' team.

"Without a doubt, soccer's the hardest sport to capture because it's a big playing area and there's no set play. It's very fluid," Skolnick says. "And it was essential if we were going to stand a chance to get the game to work on the big screen that the actual guys out there could actually [play]."

The cast was put through 21/2 weeks of soccer "boot camp" to get into shape, with a full day's schedule of stretches, exercises, jogging and soccer drills.

Adding to the number of athletes-turned-actors in the cast was Jason Statham, a former Olympic diver for England who plays the buff, psychotic goalie known only as the Monk. Statham, who played the narrator in "Snatch" and also appeared in "Lock, Stock," is "such a natural athlete that he didn't have to work out," Skolnick says.

As in "The Longest Yard," memorable for its authentic football action, most of the second half of "Mean Machine" is taken up by the climactic game, which was filmed at the end of the 45-day shoot in case any actors were injured.

Shooting at the no-longer-used Victorian Oxford Prison, Skolnick let the play unfold as naturally as possible and used up to five cameras to cover multiple angles.

"Previously people have tried to choreograph" soccer play on film "and it never looks real," says Skolnick, who has shot commercials featuring boxing and ice hockey. He said of the hockey players he used: "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred they'll be able to place the puck where I need it. Soccer players, the best in the world, don't do that; they don't have that ability to reproduce something to perfection. It's not the nature of the sport. And so what I did was I set up very loose plays that I needed to happen."

It Took 11 Takes to Get Ball Into Net

One play, when the convicts score their second goal, took about 11 takes just to get the ball into the net, Skolnick says. "I said to the defense, 'Look, you just got to try and tackle. If you get there first, that's my problem. Don't worry about it.' Because the worst thing that happens is when you get someone who looks like they're almost going to tackle someone."

"Mean Machine" was budgeted at $4 million and has taken in a healthy $8 million at the box office in the United Kingdom, despite having opened against the second week of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." But can it replicate that success in the United States, where millions of kids play soccer but the sport lags behind many others in spectators?

Skolnick and Jones think it can, just as films centered on American football, like "Jerry Maguire," have won over audiences in England because of their strong scripts and characters. "I think the key to sports movies, to be honest with you, is that the sport is actually secondary to the actual story," Skolnick says.

And where "The Longest Yard" (which was released in England as "Mean Machine," after the name of the convicts' team) balanced comedy with an anti-authoritarian statement against a corrupt system, "Mean Machine" tips the scale in favor of the roughhouse humor that made hits of "Lock, Stock" and "Snatch." As Skolnick puts it, "Someone falls over and it's funny for everyone. It should be fairly universal, hopefully."

The target audience in England was 14- to-18-year-old boys, he says, but Skolnick has been surprised that an older female audience has also reacted positively to the film. "They've kind of said, 'We don't like soccer, but yet we like this movie.' Because fundamentally, it's a feel-good film. It's a lighthearted comedy.... You don't really need to be a soccer fan to really appreciate it."

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