Review: Football tale '12 Mighty Orphans' tackled by its own clichés

Based on a true Depression-era story, Luke Wilson stars as football coach to a group of orphans in overly familiar gridiron tale.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

There's not a cliché that's not kicked through the goalposts in "12 Mighty Orphans," a sports drama that is so by-the-book that it can be recited without even looking at the page. 

Luke Wilson plays Rusty Russell, who coaches a high school football team to glory in Depression-era Texas. Not just any team, mind you, but a group of orphans, whose road to the state championships inspires a down-on-its-luck nation. Cue the waterworks.  

Luke Wilson in "12 Mighty Orphans."

Except in this telling, which seems to be based on other underdog sports tales as much as it is by the real life story of the Mighty Mites, very little registers beyond the near-parody of the storytelling and its reliance on overly familiar tropes. You can feel the moments when you're supposed to cry, but don't be surprised if the tears never arrive. Consider it a Kleenex-saver.  

Wilson's Russell arrives at a Texas orphanage to coach a ragtag football team that can't even afford shoes for its players. But all they're in need of is some good old-fashioned inspiration (and shoes, which eventually arrive), which will teach them lessons about teamwork they can carry for the rest of their lives. 

Since there's only 12 of them, they're forced to play both offense and defense. And what they lack in size they make up for in innovation; their spread-out offense is said to have lead to the advent of the passing game, and various trick plays that are still used today. 

Martin Sheen, who co-stars as the hard-drinking assistant coach known as Doc, also provides narration that sounds as if it was recorded for a greeting card commercial. Meanwhile, the Mites are pitted against not one but two sniveling bad guys: rival coach Luther Scarborough (Lane Garrison, sporting the worst haircut seen on screen in a long time) and crooked orphanage overseer Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), both cartoonish in their villainy.

A lot of the story's overcooked sentimentality could be forgiven if at least the on-field action delivered, but that falls flat, too. "12 Mighty Orphans" tries so hard to be inspirational that it trips itself up on its way out to the field. Great story, but the telling is second-string.


'12 Mighty Orphans'


Rated PG-13: for violence, language, some suggestive references, smoking and brief teen drinking

Running time: 117 minutes

In theaters