During the Great Depression, Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) gives up a privileged position to coach football at an orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas. Bringing his players into shape, they soon become an inspiration to their city, state and an entire nation...
Were '12 Mighty Orphans' released, say, thirty years ago, odds are it'd stand comfortably alongside the likes of 'Hoosiers', 'We Are Marshall', 'Remember The Titans', and other inspiring sports dramas loosely based on a true story. The playbook for these types of movies has now been utilised over and over again that one wonders how it is that actors are still signing up for them, how studios are still financing them, and why audiences are turning up for them.
'12 Mighty Orphans' really does come with a handy little checklist for every sports movie cliché imaginable. There's the good-natured, hard-working coach who just wants what's best for his band of wayward souls, played with ease by Luke Wilson. His counterpart, Martin Sheen, is the wise old sidekick who dispenses hard truths every now and then, while Wayne Knight is the laughably evil teacher who's working against the upstart coach who wants to change things for the better. The cheerleading even goes all the way to the White House, with FDR riding to their rescue towards the end of the movie.
It's not to say that any of '12 Mighty Orphans' is cynical, or indeed that any of the performances by the cast is dishonest. Everyone is playing it with a real earnestness, especially Luke Wilson. In some scenes, you can almost see the halo surrounding him as he deftly channels Henry Fonda, while Martin Sheen has shifted the latter part of his career into playing these well-meaning, softly-spoken father figures with ease. Even Wayne Knight appears to be calling on Newman in one or two scenes, and he does it with precision and grace.
For all of these performances done with conviction, '12 Mighty Orphans' falls short in just about everything else. As mentioned, the story and the arc of each of the characters couldn't be more obvious. It's not to say that you can't make an inspiring sports drama anymore because they've all been done to death, but what '12 Mighty Orphans' falls down in is that there's not enough here to sustain interest. Again, it's not that '12 Mighty Orphans' is a bad movie. It's much too competent to say that about it. It's just not terribly good either. It's a completely passable effort by all concerned, but as you watch it, it's hard not to notice that it's all been done before, but done better. There's nothing unique in the story to warrant its existence, nor are the characters so original or the performances so impressive that it's worth sitting through this amount of blandness.