Sunday, October 01, 2023

'12 Mighty Orphans' full of heart, toughness

by ERIC PLUMMER/Special to The Press
| June 18, 2021 1:00 AM

It would be all too easy to call "12 Mighty Orphans" the football version of the basketball classic "Hoosiers," and for good reason, as the movies are based on true stories and ultimately leave the viewer highly inspired by a group of underdogs.

Set in the Dust Bowl days of 1938 Texas, "12 Mighty Orphans" transports you back to the days when football was played with leather helmets and no face masks and black eyes, bloody noses and fat lips were simply part of the game. In one scene, a player admits to using baling wire on his cleats, because the shoe laces kept breaking.

The title tells the tale. A group of young boys at a Fort Worth orphanage — that essentially doubles as a child labor factory — decides to field a football team under the tutelage of a coach played by Luke Wilson, of "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Legally Blonde" fame.

Wilson shines in the lead role as coach Rusty Russell, made memorable by an understated, honest brand of acting. Russell was one of the first coaches to feature the forward pass in an era of three yards and a cloud of dust, credited by many historians as inventing the spread offense.

Upon hearing that the orphanage plans to field a team in the football-crazy state of Texas, someone mumbles, “Orphan football, that’s as dumb as letting women vote,” showing the primitive thinking that took place as the country was pulling itself out of the Great Depression.

The venerable Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall bring some star power to supporting roles. Sheen is a champion of the orphans and helps coach the team. Duvall offers a memorable line when he looks at the diminutive, fast team and says, “Most of them look like horse jockeys.”

A handful of scenes are sure to produce a lump in the throat as the older orphans routinely get passed up while the younger ones get adopted, leading to plenty of sizable chips on the shoulder as the team begins to take shape. The football action is believable, a big pre-requisite for any good sports movie, and it’s impossible not to hop on the bandwagon and go along for the ride.

Wayne Knight, better known as the mailman Newman on "Seinfeld" (“hello Newman”) and the detective whose eyes turn to saucers in the unforgettable Sharon Stone scene in "Basic Instinct," gives a memorable turn as a sadistic administrator who basically runs a child labor camp for profit. The movie doesn’t shy away from the corporal punishment of the era, with Knight brandishing a wooden paddle when kids get out of line. Perhaps it’s the pencil-thin mustache, or the expertly played antagonist, but Knight’s sinister role is reminiscent of the late and great Jackie Gleason.

Those who love sports movies won’t be disappointed, and it won’t be surprising to look back in 10 years and see several careers launched from the mostly unknown cast of young football players. Jake Austin Walker, playing a tough-as-nails yet completely vulnerable leading role, steals most of the scenes.

Similar in tone to "Hoosiers" and "Rocky," with elements of "Stand and Deliver" and "Shawshank Redemption" mixed in, "12 Mighty Orphans" offers a fun, touching and inspiring movie experience.

Stick around for the credits, where the real life, impressive post-football accomplishments of the 12 orphans are listed.

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