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Part prison film, part football film, this violent but outstanding comedy-drama by gifted action director Robert Aldrich (KISS ME DEADLY, THE DIRTY DOZEN) explores the brutality inherent in both the American penal system and football. Burt Reynolds gives one of his best performances as
Paul Crewe, a former pro who tires of being a kept man, steals his lover's car, and ends up in the prison ruled by Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert). Hazen compels Crewe to put together a team of prisoners to face the crack guard team, offering him parole in exchange for a lopsided loss. Crewe assembles
the "Mean Machine" and then does his best to throw the game (which takes up 47 minutes of screen time), leaving it early with an "injury" but returning later to lead the Machine's comeback when the guards' savageness continues unabated. Deftly employing split-screen and slow-motion techniques,
Aldrich makes the most of Tracy Keenan Wynn's incisive script, aided by fine cinematography and tight Oscar-nominated editing. Both sides of the line of scrimmage feature former gridiron stars: the guards boast one-time Viking quarterback Joe Kapp and Packer Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke, while among
the prisoners are Ernie Wheelwright, Pervis Atkins, and the University of Washington's legendary QB Sonny Sixkiller. No stranger to football himself, Reynolds, an All-Southern Conference halfback at Florida State, also played a pigskin hero in SEMI-TOUGH.