If you've seen one underdog team sports film, you've seen them all, but that doesn't stop Hollywood from churning out another two or three per year ad nauseam. Welcome "12 Mighty Orphans" to the mix, a period football film that does nothing to further the genre, but one that might satisfy those who find themselves suckers for this brand of melodrama.
Set during the Great Depression and based on a true story, a high school football coach, Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) volunteers to whip a group of orphans into shape. There are 12 of them in total, which is not the normal amount a team would want to put out an offense and a defense, but Rusty works with what he's given to rise against and overcome all odds. He's assisted by Doc Hall (Sheen), a man who cares deeply about the orphans but who is a raging alcoholic.
The film is torn to narrative pieces by the uses of flashbacks, with scenes of Rusty's time in the war, and I was reminded of the famous George Carlin bit about how football is basically a metaphor for war, with "long bombs and short strikes penetrating enemy lines" and all of that football jargon doubling as army-speak. "12 Mighty Orphans" follows nearly every sports movie cliché, with a one-note, villainous teacher played by Wayne Knight set in the role of the guy trying to sabotage the team's chances of ever becoming champs. There's always "that guy." (And to the viewer, seeing Wayne Knight pop up at all, you can almost bet that he's not going to be on the side of good).
Sheen is also tasked with narrating portions of the film that intermingle archival footage with the dramatic stuff, and it gives off a real PBS-documentary vibe...it also sucks all momentum out of the story and grounds the film in banality. The orphans themselves are not given much depth or dimension...a real tragedy given the title of the film and that this should be their story above all others. One boy (Jake Austin Walker) plays the deviant who eventually comes around to respecting his mentors and proving his worth as a team player.
"12 Mighty Orphans" plays by all of the genre rules, and in some respects goes down like comfort food...you know what you're going to get when you sit down to watch this one, and if that's the mood you're in, it's bound to satisfy. But it's really a thin work, with missed opportunities aplenty and not nearly enough substance for a wider audience to sink their teeth into or even remotely care about.
Genre: Sports, History.
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes.
Starring: Luke Wilson, Wayne Knight, Treat Williams, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Vinessa Shaw.
Directed by Ty Roberts ("The Iron Orchard," "This Side of the Dirt").
"12 Mighty Orphans" opens in theaters on Friday, June 18th, 2021.
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