12 Mighty Orphans - B-
Rated PG-13, 118 minutes
The entertaining true-sports movie "12 Mighty Orphans" knows its well-worn formula well: the underdog turned champions. Its earnestness can be a tad grating, but in the end is an inspiring look at some Texas high school football champions well before Friday Night Lights came along.
During the Great Depression, Rusty Russell ("Stargirl's" Luke Wilson) gives up a privileged position to coach football at The Masonic Home and School orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas. With the help of his assistant, Doc Hall (Emmy-winner Martin Sheen), they whip his young players into shape, they would become known as The Mighty Mites and soon become an inspiration to their city, state and an entire nation.
Directed by Texan Ty Roberts ("The Iron Orchard"), the predictable yet affecting "12 Mighty Orphans" runs many of the same plays seen in such true-sports films as "Rudy" and "Remember the Titans" but pulls out a few touching plays that pulls out a win at the end. Wilson is coach Russell, an orphan himself and Texas high school football legend who would later coach in college at Southern Methodist University.
Co-written by Roberts, Kevin Myer and Lane Garrison (who also plays a unlikable opposing coach in the film) and loosely based on sportswriter Jim Dent's non-fiction book "Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football" has a golly-gee earnestness along with clunky, irritating dialogue, not to mention plot twists you can see coming from a mile away. Those over-the-top turns from Wayne Knight ("Jurassic Park") and Garrison seem out-of-place, existing only to have some bad guys around.
The likable Wilson keeps "12 Mighty Orphans" together, though Sheen's hammy turn as the boozy Hall comes close to stealing the film (his folksy narration, on the other hand, is unnecessary); blink twice and you'll miss Oscar-winner Robert Duvall's cameo (and yes, that's comedian Ron White as a local sheriff). A couple of other real-life people are memorably portrayed in "Orphans," by "Everwood's" Treat Williams as Texas legend Amon Carter, and "Stargirl's" Jake Austin Walker as Hardy Brown, a standout player on Russell's team who would go on to a great NFL career as a fierce linebacker for such teams as the San Francisco 49rs and Washington Redskins.
"12 Mighty Orphans" is loaded with native Texans in front and behind the camera (including its director and star), and they seem to know the importance of high school football in Texas for decades, helped by Russell and The Mighty Mites. While nothing new to the genre and maybe overstating the Mites importance, it's an inspiring, even charming look at how some orphans who had lost so much became winners. Worth a look for sports fans and especially Friday Night Lights enthusiasts.