Review: ‘12 Mighty Orphans’ sentimental but still a winner for a sports movie

Sony Pictures

If like so many other football fans your juices begin to flow for the upcoming season around midsummer, then Sony Pictures has your remedy with its latest film “12 Mighty Orphans.”

The movie, starring Luke Wilson and Martin Sheen and directed by Ty Roberts from a screenplay by Roberts, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer, is a modestly budgeted winner that is a tad sentimental but also invigorating and inspirational like all good sports films should be.

Disregard the lowish Rotten Tomatoes score. This movie is worthwhile if you enjoy football and have a place in your heart for underdog stories. The movie adapts Jim Dent’s “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football.”

The film, based on a true story, tells the tale of how World War I veteran and orphan, himself, Rusty Russell (Wilson) built a winning football program in Forth Worth, Texas, during the Great Depression with a dozen orphans at the Masonic Home for Children and scraps.

His squad started with no field, no cleats, no equipment, save for a make-shift football, but thanks to their heart, desire and their coach’s innovation they formed a team that challenges for the state title against the best the state of Texas had to offer.

There’s no getting around the formulaic nature of the movie, but under Roberts’ direction, the film expertly nailed all the right notes to have the audience cheering for the Mighty Mites like they would for Rudy or Rocky.

The movie is a fine comeback film for Wilson, who of late has played a co-starring role in the The CW/HBO Max super-hero show “Star Girl,” which is set to return for it second season in August.

Wilson’s Russell has that everyman earnestness of a character played by Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart. Sheen plays Doc Hall, Rusty’s right-hand man and trainer, who drinks a bit too much for his own good but also has great love for the young men fostered at the home.

Football, of course, creates a bond between the boys, giving them a sense of belonging and self-worth that each lacked before Russell melded them into an overachieving team.

Jake Austin Walker, also featured in “Stargirl” is solid as the Mites’ hard-hitting star safety and running back Hardy Russell. One of the hardest cases at the orphanage, Russell finds meaning and friendship among his teammates.

In real life, Hardy went on to play for the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL, where he was known as one of the most feared men in the game. In Y.A. Tittle’s book “I Pass,” the author claimed that Hardy knocked out 21 opponents during the 1951 season, including the entire Washington Redskins’ backfield in one preseason game.

The film details how Russell improvised and revolutionized football because of his squad’s lack of size. He developed the Wing-T formation with its wide splits for linemen, as well as using a quarterback to distribute the ball behind the line of scrimmage as well as downfield with the forward pass.

The movie also features Vanessa Shaw as Russell’s supportive wife and the orphanage’s English teacher, Juanita, as well as Wayne Knight (Newman from “Seinfeld) as the sadistic orphanage manager Frank Wynn, who uses the children illegally to work in a printing sweat shop and enjoys punishing the boys a little too much with his wooden paddle.

The movie is a throwback to film-making of the 1930s and ‘40s that might seem old fashioned and maudlin to some, but it was refreshing and entertaining to me.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 58 min.
Grade: B

New in Local Theaters

F9: The Fast Saga (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 2 hr. 25 min. / AMC Fiesta 12, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Rogers Towne, Bentonville Skylight, 112 Drive In

Werewolves Within (watch trailer) / (R) 1 hr. 44 min. / Malco Razorback

Classic Corner: Hitchcock marathon on tap this weekend on TCM

Despite not advertising or featuring the information on its website, Turner Classic Movies is offering its viewers what amounts to a two-day Alfred Hitchcock film festival from 5 a.m. Saturday through the wee hours of Monday morning.

Hitchcock, of course, is the Master of Suspense and one of the greatest directors ever to put eye to lens with an oeuvre of films dating from the 1920s through the mid 1970s. Many of them are playing on TCM this weekend. My DVR is going to be working overtime.

Here is a list of the movies showing in the clandestine film festival:


5 a.m. — Sabotage (1936)
6:30 a.m. — The 39 Steps (1935)
8 a.m. — The Wrong Man (1956)
10 a.m. – Saboteur (1942)
12 p.m. — Torn Curtain (1966)
2:15 p.m. — North by Northwest (1959)
4:45 p.m. — Vertigo (1958)
7 p.m. — The Birds (1963)
9:15 p.m. – Rear Window (1954)
11:15 p.m. — Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


1:30 a.m. — Strangers on a Train
3:30 a.m. – Family Plot (1976)
5:30 a.m. — The Lady Vanishes (1938)
7:15 p.m. — Suspicion (1941)
9 a.m. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
11:15 a.m. — Rope (1948)
12:30 p.m. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
3 p.m. — Dial M for Murder (1954)
5 p.m. Trouble with Harry (1955)
7 p.m. — Psycho (1960)
9 p.m. — Marnie (1964)
11:15 p.m. — The Lodger (1927)
1:15 a.m. — The Man Who Knew Too Much (1935)
2:25 a.m. — Frenzy (1972)

Smokey and the Bandit (112 Drive In)

Sally Field and Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit / Universal Pictures

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, Burt Reynolds was the quintessential movie star, the original guy whom every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to be with.

Reynolds could act. His 1972 performance in “Deliverance” proved his detractors wrong in that regard, but he was at his best playing free-wheeling, comedic characters in a series of films from the mid 1970s through the early 1980s that made him a box-office favorite.

I particularly liked Reynolds as the half American Indian blacksmith Quint Asper on “Gunsmoke” (1962-65) which I discovered in re-runs, and his 1990-94 sitcom “Evening Shade,” set in a fictional small Arkansas town, is decent, too.

However, his 1977 action/comedy “Smokey and the Bandit” may be his most famous film. For whatever reason, trucking and CB radios became a “thing” in the mid to late 1970s like mood rings, pet rocks and disco, and Hollywood was there to cash in.

The film stars Reynolds as the “Bandit,” a notorious trucker, gambler, and ladies man who along with his partner Cledus “Snowman” Snow accept a bet that they can deliver 400 cases of bootleg Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta in 28 hours.

Along the way, they pick up runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field) for fun, and are chased by a gaggle of lawmen led by Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) and his bumbling son Junior Justice (Mike Henry).

The movie was fun counter-programming to George Lucas’ “Star Wars” in the summer of 1977. The first time I saw “Smokey and the Bandit” was because tickets for “Star Wars” were sold out, and it was the only other option at the twin theater in West Memphis. However several of my friends and I returned to watch it a couple of more times on dollar-nights that summer.

There just wasn’t a lot for pre-teens to do in the days before video games and home video on nights without little league baseball but go to the movies, even if the same two movies played for a month at a time.

I’m not going to say “Smokey and the Bandit” is necessarily a good movie. Built on trends of its time, it hasn’t exactly aged well, but it is a fun movie if you allow it to be. It’s showing as the second half of the double feature at the 112 Drive In this weekend.

(PG) 1 hr. 36 min