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Who could resist a Depression-era sports drama involving Texas orphans and a gentle, do-gooder head football coach named Rusty Russell? In 12 Mighty Orphans, we’ve got a scrub squad that is undersized, unwanted and undermanned. As the movie title indicates, just 12 kids are on the whole team – a dirty dozen by any other name.
There’s a villainous orphanage official (Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight in scheming Snidely Whiplash mode) who runs his side of the humble institution like a prison. The lovable assistant coach is a country doctor with a drinking problem. With its old-fashioned look, quaint unsophistication and self-consciously big heart, this film is Hoosiers meets The Longest Yard, with an Oliver Twist.
The screenplay is adapted from sportswriter Jim Dent’s book Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football. Director-writer Ty Roberts took that ball and ran with it, playing up the David vs. Goliath angle with tear-streaked emotions.
Luke Wilson stars as coach Russell, a First World War veteran who motivates a team of misfits by strategic innovation – literally game-changing tactics – and by instilling in the boys a sense of self-esteem.
Standouts include Jake Austin Walker as Hardy Brown, the brooding best player, and Bob Dylan’s model-actor grandson Levi Dylan as Fairbanks, fast on the field and off it. These guys are authentically boys among men: Walker at age 24 and Dylan at 27 defy belief attempting to portray 17-year-olds.
Martin Sheen is ol’ Doc Hall, a flask-happy father figure. Robert Duvall makes an appearance, but his role as a friend of the orphanage was all but edited out of the film. Still, this marks the first time Sheen and Duvall have appeared together on screen since Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now from 1979.
You say apocalypse, and Sheen’s narrator/doctor says the Dust Bowl calamity of the 1930s “made hell on Earth look forgiving.” What does that even mean? The phrase “hell on Earth” is a figure of speech – do the scriptwriters not know this?
Indeed, the film is over the top, as these kind of Hollywood heartstring-pullers tend to be. More than once, the coach’s battlefield flashbacks are equated with football field misfortunes. It’s out of proportion and shameless. But, as they say, everything is bigger in Texas. And it is probably true that all is fair in love, war and motion pictures. Go cliché or go home, to coin a phrase.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)
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