Review: ‘12 Mighty Orphans’ takes a pat, old-fashioned approach to underdog sports drama

A young man in an old-time football uniform charges up the field while evading tacklers.
Jake Austin Walker, with football, as Hardy Brown in “12 Mighty Orphans.”
(Laura Wilson / Sony Pictures Classics)

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It’s hard to believe that the story of the Depression-era Fort Worth “Mighty Mites” football team hasn’t been told onscreen before — except that, in a way, it has. This saga of a group of down-on-their-luck young athletes and their inspiring coach is reminiscent of “Hoosiers,” “Remember the Titans,” “Miracle” ... heck, even “The Bad News Bears.” So viewers who can’t get enough of underdog sports movies should enjoy the new film “12 Mighty Orphans,” even if it doesn’t feel all that “new.”

For those who find these kinds of pictures predictable and painfully corny, there are still small pleasures scattered throughout, from some striking images of spare Texas farmland to solid performances by the always engaging Luke Wilson and Martin Sheen (plus a brief but welcome cameo from the great Robert Duvall).


Wilson — who comes by his low-key Texan affability naturally — plays Rusty Russell, who in 1927 became a teacher and coach at Fort Worth Masonic Home, a school and residence for orphans. According to Texas high school football legend, Russell made the best of the institution’s limited resources, building a competitive program from scratch by educating the boys and inventing new offensive strategies.

“12 Mighty Orphans” compresses some of the success Russell and Masonic had in the late 1930s and early ’40s into a single season, with a team featuring future NFL star Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker). Director and co-writer Ty Roberts hits the expected underdog melodrama notes — some taken from Jim Dent’s book about the team, some clearly exaggerated to make the villains more villainous and the heroes more virtuous.

The dialogue is often groaningly on-the-nose, and the push to make every character and moment fit a formula robs “12 Mighty Orphans” of a lot of personality. Nevertheless, these kinds of movies are popular for a reason. Even one as generic as this still has some pop.

Again, credit Wilson and Sheen — with the latter playing a kindly old drunken doctor who lays off his flask for a while to help the kids drive to a championship. Nothing that happens in “12 Mighty Orphans” is unexpected, but these two pros still react with infectious wonder as the messages they send to their students take root and then sprout.

'12 Mighty Orphans'

Rated: PG-13, for violence, language, some suggestive references, smoking and brief teen drinking

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: Starts June 18 in general release