Dir: Barry Skolnick. UK. 2001. 99 mins.

A loose remake and Anglicisation of Robert Aldrich's 1974 prison drama staring Burt Reynolds (released in some territories as The Longest Yard), Mean Machine is aimed at the same audience as Ska Films' most notable hits to date, Guy Ritchie's 1997 Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and his 2000 follow-up, Snatch. Like them it has an underworld setting, a virtually all-male cast, several of who are alumni from the earlier films (comedienne Sally Phillips languishes in a risibly token female role as a secretary) and a colourful, slangy screenplay (the production notes come complete with a glossary of prison argot).

That said, both screenplay and direction are vastly inferior to Ritchie's two films. Mean Machine could also suffer from the traditional box-office jinx on British football movies, as well as the fact that it comes in the wake of other recent UK prison pictures like Lucky Break and Greenfingers. Still, it's an ideal vehicle for footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones, who after a series of hardman roles, reveals a more subtle, slightly vulnerable side to his screen persona. His name should also usher this to moderate success, at least with young males, in the UK market. It should also score in the home rental sector.

Jones plays Danny Meehan, a former captain of the England soccer team who has fallen from grace after accusations of fixing an international against Germany. A drink-driving and assault charge land him a three-year prison sentence, where he initially meets with nothing but contempt from his fellow convicts. His luck begins to turn when he's approached by the seedy prison governor (Hemmings) to improve the guards' semi-professional football team. Danny proposes training a team of prisoners for them to practise against.

After a dismal opening half-hour - groaning with such threadbare dialogue as "You're nicked, sunshine" - the film improves considerably as the team takes shape, individual prisoners start to stand out from the crowd and the mood lightens up. Befriended by Massive, a diminutive wheeler-dealer (Blackwood) and Doc, a battered old-timer (Kelly), Danny auditions a motley crew of wannabes and licks them into shape by teaching them a combination of rudimentary skills and dirty tricks. His greatest asset turns out to be his goalkeeper, a psychotic giant known as The Monk (Jason Statham) who's rumoured to have killed 23 men with his bare hands and is now spending most of his sentence in solitary confinement, but proves ace on the pitch.

There are no surprises in the development of the plot, which calls upon Danny to confront his past and rediscover his integrity, but director Barry Skolnick, a veteran of commercials, making his feature debut, brings a lively touch to the climactic screws-versus-cons match. The numerous comic touches include an amusing parody of television sports commentators ("Looks like the guards aren't taking any prisoners"). Further technical credits are difficult to assess from the poor-quality DV copy shown to critics at the screening.

Prod co: Ska Films, Ruddy/Morgan Productions
UK dist: UIP
Int'l dist: Paramount
Exec prods: Guy Ritchie, Al Ruddy, Cynthia Pett-Dante
Prods: Matthew Vaughn, Georgia Masters
Scr: Charlie Fletcher, Chris Baker, Andy Day, based on a story by Al Ruddy
Cinematography: Alex Barber
Prod des: Russell de Rosario
Eds: Dayn Williams, Eddie Hamilton. Music: John Murphy
Main cast: Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham, Danny Dyer, David Kelly, David Hemmings, Vas Blackwood