Criminal Mischief


In Barry Skolnick’s Mean Machine, a minor-league soccer remake of The Longest Yard, British jailbirds use their one hour of daily recreation time to train for a grudge match against the guards. Taking the Burt Reynolds role is hulking footballer turned actor Vinnie Jones (of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Gone in 60 Seconds); the filmmakers have carefully rewritten his character—disgraced onetime national team captain Danny “Mean Machine” Meehan—to make sure you don’t despise him after his initial idiocy (DUI, assault upon the arresting officers) earns him a three-year prison stint. In Robert Aldrich’s 1971 original, the quarterback goes on his spree right after a rich, non-football-appreciating broad reminds him that he is her kept man, whereas Meehan, who’s merely a loner and a loser, swiftly recognizes his failures, confessing, “You never know how much you mean to people until you’ve let them down.”

Meehan is unfailingly stoic as he suffers the schemes of the gambling-addicted warden (David Hemmings) and the contempt of the head guard (a menacing Ralph Brown, who played the stoner in Withnail and I). It’s not hard to tell that the producers also made Lock, Stock—Meehan is dragooned into a ridiculously prolonged bare-knuckle brawl (no broken hands, just bloody noses, and they’re on the practice field the next day).

Once the big game begins, Mean Machine becomes a veritable fiesta of men in shorts bashing the shit out of each other. The most off-key notes here are the sentimental ones: When David Kelly shows up, reprising the wise-trustee role he had in the horticulture-behind-bars movie Greenfingers, it’s as though some twee script gremlin sneaked in and meddled with the Guy Ritchie schematics.

As crimes go, writer-director Michael Kalesniko’s How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog is slight but unendurable. This comedy about a down-on-his-luck playwright (Kenneth Branagh) starts off with scenes involving a digital prostate exam and a pregnancy checkup, complete with the hero musing, as he gazes over the doctor’s shoulder, “Why is it that the gates of heaven are located so close to the . . . ?” The movie is purportedly a tale of his enlightenment via an appealingly low-key friendship with a neighbor child (Suzi Hofrichter, a real find), though its fractured time frame gets confusing. Branagh’s character is introduced at a lecture, to wild applause, as “America’s favorite bastard,” but even a well-known writer wouldn’t score a lengthy appearance on a live L.A. morning show, where the smarmy host (Peri Gilpin) goes all Charlie Rose on him; these intercut TV scenes read as an egotist’s fantasy. Next to this, even Mean Machine‘s painless soft-tissue spikings and fast-fixing broken limbs are believable—and way funnier.