Woodrow Luttrell, Luke Wilson and Martin Sheen in 12 Mighty Orphans (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

12 MIGHTY ORPHANS
★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Ty Roberts
STARS Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen

It’s not the fault of modern filmmakers that the sports flicks of yesteryear have turned many an inspiring moment or underdog scenario into clichés and bromides as rigid as a mosquito trapped in amber. But it’s also not the fault of modern audiences if they feel they have seen it all before. This push-pull dichotomy leads 12 Mighty Orphans, the latest movie in this vein, to come up a yard short of the goal line.

Speaking of which, that one-yard stop is included here, along with such other tired sports-flicks tropes as the kindly coach who doles out fatherly advice, the ruthless coach who orders a player to critically injure the opposing team’s star player, the stand-by-your-man wife/girlfriend on hand to provide a lecture that will cause the crestfallen coach to furrow his brow and think about things anew, and the inspirational halftime speech that cures all ills. There are also clichés not limited to sports yarns, such as a perpetually booze-swilling doctor actually called “Doc” (and who of course finally pours his alcohol out as a defining and defiant gesture) and villains written as so heinous, they shouldn’t be Texans toiling in institutes of learning but should instead be Germans taking part in Kristallnacht.

Adapted from Jim Dent’s nonfiction book by director Ty Roberts, co-star Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer, this stars Luke Wilson as Rusty Russell, who became the head coach at a Fort Worth orphanage and in the process was one of the creators (if not the creator) of the “spread offense” still employed today. The orphanage had no football team at the time, so Russell built one from scratch and turned it into a gridiron great.

Wayne Knight in 12 Mighty Orphans (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

On paper (and in history), it’s an inspirational story, but the filmmakers never figure out how to make the movie sing on its own. It certainly doesn’t help that the bad guys of the story are so cartoonishly over-the-top. Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight) is an orphanage administrator who savagely beats his charges with a paddle, openly sneers at everyone, and eventually passes information along to an opposing team’s coach to undermine his own school’s championship chances. That opposing coach is the real-life Luther Scarborough, by all accounts a decent man with a normal haircut but here portrayed (badly) by co-scripter Garrison (he was also the weak lead in Roberts’ prior picture, The Iron Orchard, reviewed here) as a slimy guy with an awful haircut that doesn’t look at all period (it does, however, look like the sort a trendy Beverly Hills twit would pay $800 to acquire).

Wilson and Martin Sheen (as “Doc”) are earnest and affable in the lead roles, Jake Austin Walker gets the job done as the troubled student who enjoys the most complete character arc, and Treat Williams offers a sly, spirited turn as real-life newspaper owner Amon Carter. As an orphanage booster, Robert Duvall’s part is so tiny and insignificant that it’s hard to believe agents were called, contracts signed, and limos sent to take him to the shoot. Instead, the impression is that he just happened to be driving by and the filmmakers flagged him down and offered him a cameo in their movie.

(12 Mighty Orphans is playing in select theaters nationally and is available on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and other streaming platforms.)

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