[Screen It]


(2021) (Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen) (PG-13)

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Drama: A Depression-era coach tries to form a football team out of orphans who've never played before and teach them some important life lessons along the way.

It's 1938 and Rusty Russell (LUKE WILSON), his wife, Juanita (VINESSA SHAW), and their young daughter have just moved into the Masonic Home and School of Texas where Juanita is going to be teaching English and Music, while Rusty will be teaching Math and Science. He also plans on trying to form a football team from the 150 orphans living there, even if there's no football field or equipment available and none of the students have ever played the game.

While the dean of sorts, Frank Wynn (WAYNE KNIGHT), treats most of the kids as inmates as well as free slave labor for the print shop run from the school, Rusty hopes to take a different approach with the help of resident physician Doc E.P. Hall (MARTIN SHEEN) who will also serve as his defensive coordinator. While rival high school coach Luther Scarborough (LANE GARRISON) dismisses the attempt, Rusty manages to field twelve boys who will have to play both sides of the ball.

Among those playing is Fairbanks (LEVI DYLAN), Snoggs (JACOB LOFLAND), Dewitt (PRESTON PORTER), Wheatie (SLADE MONROE), and Chicken (SAMPLEY BARINAGA), but the star player might be new to the fold Hardy Brown (JAKE AUSTIN WALKER) who's just arrived at the school, having witnessed his father's murder.

With the odds stacked against them in every way imaginable, Rusty and Doc Hall try to get the boys ready for their first game, and due to them mostly being undersized compared to their competition, must come up with a new way of playing to give them a chance to win.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

Considering the total number of movies ever made -- I read somewhere that it's estimated to be around half a million across the past century-plus and most of the countries around the world, it always surprises me when a new movie shows up that's "based on" or "inspired by" fairly remarkable real-world events that somehow only now has been made.

And that's because you'd think anything notable or worth telling would have been turned into a film already (particularly since Hollywood churns out sequels and reboots as if no original stories exist anymore).

With that in mind, and not having grown up in the glow of Texas football, I was surprised to hear about Coach Rusty Russell and one significant chapter of his life that just screamed to be told up on the big screen. With Dallas-area sportswriter turned New York Times bestselling author Jim Dent telling the tale in his 2007 book "Twelve Mighty Orphans," it's now making its way through the light of a projector as "12 Mighty Orphans."

For those not experiencing any ringing bells (which was yours truly before seeing the film), Russell coached football on the high school and college level for four decades and is noted by Dent as being the one who changed the game of football forever by developing the spread offense and its more complex passing attack.

And that apparently took place when he decided to leave the head coaching job at Temple High School and take over the same spot at the Fort Worth Masonic Home for orphaned kids. The only problem was the school didn't have a team or any experienced potential players. Undeterred, he made it work, and now his tale is out for all to see some eight decades plus after his team's pivotal 1938 season.

The result is a classic underdog sports tale complete with the usual tropes and cliches. It's not by any means the greatest such offering in the sports drama genre -- and it suffers from completely unnecessary and far too on-the-nose voice-over narration -- but for the most part, it works okay enough to get the story across.

Luke Wilson plays Russell as a determined and mostly optimistic man who wants to give the orphans hope, not only due to being a coach, teacher, and father, but also a fellow orphan himself. Flashback scenes also show his time in the trenches and battlefields of WWI, but those never really amount to much and could have been jettisoned with no ill effect. Along with his wife (Vinessa Shaw) who's not crazy about this idea or uprooting their small family, Rusty's other adult companion is the school's resident physician (Martin Sheen, also serving as that unnecessary narrator) who ends up as his assistant and coach on the defensive side of things despite being a high-functioning alcoholic.

Most of the boys are barely explored, that is, except for Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) who arrives as the newest orphan, having just seen his father murdered and is covered in his blood. He ends up having a knack for the game and turns into the star player. Aside from a few distinguishing characteristics, however, the rest of the mighty dozen are just filler for the team positions.

The film's antagonists arrive in the form of Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight, further cementing his on-screen status as the creepy bad guy after his stint on "Seinfeld'' -- "Newman!" -- and the corrupt tech guy in "Jurassic Park" among other offerings) who plays the school's abusive dean of sorts, and Lane Garrison as the coach of a rival team who isn't above belittling Rusty and his.

Things play out -- based on the script by Ty Roberts, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer -- pretty much the way you'd expect, but Roberts as the director sometimes lets the proceedings get or at least feel too loose and disjointed. And that puts somewhat of a damper on one's engagement with the story and rooting for the team, players, and coach to succeed despite the odds and obstacles stacked against them.

Considering it's a never before told cinematic tale about a fairly remarkable event, it's too bad the overall offering isn't as noteworthy. Okay but held back by some cinematic penalties, "12 Mighty Orphans" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 11, 2021 / Posted June 18, 2021

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