Former NFL quarterback Paul "Wrecking" Crewe (Adam Sandler) is sentenced to a prison in Allenville, Texas after stealing his girlfriend's Bentley and taking it for a drunken joyride. We come to learn that Crewe has violated his probation which he was on for shaving points off of a football game he was involved.
Crewe arrived in Allentown where he learns that the guards are pretty ruthless and that the Warden (James Cromwell) isn't much better. The Warden informs Crewe that he pulled some strings to bring him to Allentown so he could help coach the Warden's semi-pro football team which is comprised of the prison's guards. The guard captain, Knauer (William Fichtner), has told Crewe to refuse to help the Warden with the team because Knauer claims that he runs this prison. Crewe, after a beating, agrees and declines to help the Warden, even though it could make his stay a lot easier, but Crewe knows if he offers to help, the guards will make his life a living hell. Eventually, Crewe learns that his time isn't going to be easy either way so he agrees to help assist the team.
While meeting with the Warden, Crewe suggests that the way for the guards team to get into shape was to have a warm-up game and the Warden ordered Crewe to form a team consisting of the inmates to take on the guards. Crewe meets up with Caretaker (Chris Rock), a black guy so bad at sports that he was picked after the white kids. Caretaker apparently has the ability to smuggle just about anything into the prison and agrees to help Crewe form a team to take on the guards. Shortly after meeting with Caretaker, Crewe makes a reputation for himself by starting a riot in the lunchroom.
Crewe and Caretaker begin forming the team, some cons are interested, others could care less. Most of the cons that are interested are incredibly out of shape and probably shouldn't even try playing, but it's all Crewe has at the moment. They do, however, come across Switowski (Bob Sapp), a monstrous black guy who's about as harmful as a fly. Crewe and Caretaker agree to teach Switowski how to play and also inform him that he has a shot at the guards.
Practices pretty much turn into brawls each time the ball is snapped. Crewe doesn't have anyone protecting him and doesn't have anyone to throw the ball too. Eventually, Crewe and Caretaker are approached by Nate Scarboro (Burt Reynolds) , a former Heisman Trophy winning running back from Oklahoma State. Scarboro introduces the two to Skitchy Rivers, an old timer who increased his sentence by 20 years when he once punched out the Warden. Rivers has access to all sorts of places in the prison, one being the inmate files where we learn each inmate has a violence rating based on a 1-5 star scale. The more stars, the more violent. While Scarboro knows they won't have the most talented team, they know they're definitely have the meanest.
Crewe and Caretaker go on a recruiting mission that starts with Torres (Lobo Sebastian), a gangbanger type who has an apparent interest for the TV show "The View". Initially, Torres wants nothing to do with playing football but after a guard cuts short his TV time, Torres joins in and we learn that he's one hell of a safety. Crewe and Caretaker continue recruiting and are able to get Joey Battle (Bill Goldberg) to join the team. Battle dons an "X" on his jersey and he too is a madman on the field. All the while, the guards have deployed a spy, another old timer by the name of Unger who reports back to the guards on what he sees in practice each day.
Crewe eventually gets Turley, a seven foot monster to join the team. Once again, the main reason being is that they'll get a shot a the guards. Crewe lines up Turley at fullback so he can have someone watching his back. On his first play, Turley delivers a big boot to Switowski and smashes his facemask right into his nose. Crewe gets Turley to apologize and we see that Crewe is slowly bringing the team together to achieve one common goal: beating the guards. Crewe realizes how much it would mean to the inmates and how much it would eat away at the Warden if his team were to lose to the cons.
Unfortunately, the team still isn't complete. While they have some heavy hitters on defense, Crewe still has no receivers, or a running back. Caretaker suggests they head over to the basketball courts which are dominated by a group of physically gifted and athletic black dudes. Crewe meets Deacon Moss (Michael Irvin), the man who seems to be the leader of the group. We also meet Cheeseburger Eddy, who we saw briefly in the beginning. Eddy can somehow smuggle just about any McDonald's food into the prison and also backs up whatever Moss says. Moss has no interest in joining the team, figuring the game will be a complete mockery and just another way for the guards to humiliate the inmates. Crewe challenges Moss to a game of one on one with a call your own foul stipulation. If Crewe wins, Moss plays, if Moss wins, Crewe will leave them alone.
Throughout the entire game Moss is throwing cheap shots, trying to get Crewe to call a foul, but Crewe continues to get up, thus slowly earning the respect of Moss and his group. At game point, Crewe makes a steal and sinks the winning shot but Moss calls foul. With the help of Eddy, Moss is able to win the game and tells Crewe to take a hike. Before Crewe leaves, he's apparently caught the interest of one Earl Megget (Nelly), who offers to be the team's running back. During a practice, we see that Megget has some awesome talent. This provokes Unger, the guards spy to tell the guards what the cons have up their sleeve. This causes the guards to further mess with the cons who have joined the team. They flood the practice field on them but that doesn't seem to break their spirits as the entire team dives in and seems to come closer together.
Eventually, the Warden (who has since made plans to have the game nationally televised by ESPN2) learns that the inmate team is vastly improving with Crewe at the helm. The Warden urges Unger to make Crewe "disappear." In another segment, Megget is harassed by the guards in the library. Megget has simply enrolled to do a job putting away books, even though he doesn't read, Megget enjoys the quiet time. Several of the guards try to provoke Megget into taking a swing at them by knocking over his books and calling him a n*gger. Megget keeps his cool, however, but it only further angers the guards. All the while, Moss and some of his crew have beared witness to this and decide to join the team after all. During another practice segment, we see that Moss also has incredible ability at wide receiver.
While all this is going on, Crewe and Caretaker are becoming pretty good friends. They have side by side cells and one night, Caretaker has managed to get a bottle of wine which they share. Crewe and Caretaker briefly talk about their lives on the outside and the scene ends when Caretaker asks Crewe why he threw that game back when he was a pro. Crewe asks Caretaker, "You ever read the papers? I'm innocent." But Crewe's demeanor tells us otherwise.
In the days leading up to the game, the inmate team seems to be coming together more and more. However, they are dealt a huge blow when Caretaker is murdered. During a practice, Unger had snuck into Crewe's cell and rigged his radio to explode when it was tinkered with. Caretaker enters Crewe's cell to grab something when Unger, who had been hiding in Caretaker's cell, jumps out and slides the door shut on Caretaker. Just as the door is shut, Caretaker goes to turn off Crewe's radio when it explodes. Crewe, Scarboro and the team rush to the cell but the door is locked and there's nothing they can do.
Caretaker is given a funeral service in what appears to be a prison graveyard. Now, more than ever, the team seems to be on the same page, they all want to beat the guards. Crewe reminds them all that Caretaker wouldn't want them giving up on themselves.
In the days leading up to the game, in the inmates do a little fighting back. One segment in particular shows them switching out a guards steroids for estrogen, which makes for some laughs later on.
Finally, gameday has arrived. ESPN2 is on the scene to cover the game with Chris Berman doing the play by play. Before the game, the Warden comes in to the inmate locker room to tell them that the entire stadium is blanketed with armed guards and snipers and should any one of them try to escape, they will be shot...in the head. Warden wishes them luck and walks out. Crewe then delivers a pre-game speech and reveals the Caretaker's last gift to them, professional style uniforms and gear with "Mean Machine" on the front.
The team's are introduced and naturally the inmates are booed, reminding us that the heroes we're rooting for are still convicts.
The game is on and the inmates kick off. For the first few plays, all the inmates go after the respective guards that have caused them so much trouble. Thus, this gives the guards and easy two touchdown lead. Crewe has to rally them and get their heads in the game. And we see that Scarboro is suited up to play, despite his age. Scarboro says he didn't come this far just to be a spectator.
As the game goes on, we learn that the inmate team is pretty good, but they're having a hard time getting anywhere because the referee's are just a tad bit crooked. Crewe decides to take care of that, calling two straight plays in which he whips the ball right into the crotch of the crooked ref. Crewe says he wants a fair game and the ref abides.
The Warden is watching from the stands while his team dominates but eventually, the inmates make a comeback and slowly begin to sway the fans to their side. By halftime, we have a tie, much to the chagrin of the guards and the Warden. Also, most of the inmates have gotten a good shot on the guards that have given them hell of the years. One particularly funny scene involves Switowski laying into guard Dunham, the fullback. Switowski turns Dunham head over heels with a clothesline tackle and then says, "You smell that? I think I made him shit himself!" Other teammates and the EMT's that come to cart Dunham off the field can do nothing but agree.
At halftime, the Warden confronts Crewe. The Warden said he never wanted a real competition to happen as the game was supposed to be a cakewalk for his guards. Crewe says the game means too much to the inmates and he refuses to throw it away. The Warden informs Crewe that his status in the state is extremely high, and in the case of running his prison, it makes him the judge, jury and executioner for Crewe. The Warden demands Crewe loses the game or else he'll fabricate a story that Crewe knew about Caretaker's murder the entire time. Much to his chagrin, Crewe agrees to lose the game. He makes Warden promise, however, that once they're up by two scores that they simply coast through the rest of the game. The Warden agrees.
Just before the second half begins, the Warden confronts Knauer, the quarterback of the guards team. Knauer says they'll handle their business but Warden says that isn't good enough and he's made arrangements for Crewe to lose the game. This angers Knauer, who can't believe the Warden doesn't have any faith in his own team. Warden also says he wants the guards to go up by three touchdowns and then show no mercy throughout the rest of the game. Knauer agrees.
The second half begins and Crewe intentionally overthrows Moss, the pass is intercepted and returned for a touchdown. On the next possession, Crewe botches a toss to Megget, the ball is recovered by the guards and run in for a touchdown. The guards now have their two touchdown lead (much to the amusement of the Warden) and Crewe takes himself out of the game, claiming he's injured his knee. The inmate team becomes disgusted with Crewe's actions and he's pretty much taken the wind out of their sails, even Scarboro's. Crewe sits idly by as the guards go up by three touchdowns, but then his mind begins to change as he sees that the guards aren't showing any let up, which is against what Crewe and the Warden agreed to.
As the game turns into a wash, Crewe's mind begins to change as he weighs the consequences. He asks Skitchy if it was worth it when he decked out the Warden and then was given an extra 20 years on his sentence. Skitchy claims it was worth every second and this is enough for Crewe to bring himself back in the game. On the first snap, however, the rest of the team doesn't block for Crewe and he's destroyed by the guards. Crewe says he deserved it and calls another play, this one ends with the same results. Crewe calls a timeout and brings the team together. Crewe informs the team that yes, he did throw that game all those years ago. He was in a bad spot with some people and thought his life was on the line but he's regretted it everyday since. He tells the team that the Warden wants him to throw this game as well but Crewe won't do that, even if it means spending 25 years to life in prison. This brings the team's spirits back up and we again have a game on our hands.
Eventually, the cons are within one touchdown of tying the game, all while the Warden is going out of his mind in the stands. Knauer begins to see the resilience and toughness of the inmate team, he's also still a little miffed that the Warden didn't have any faith for his team to win on their own.
As the game is coming to an end, Torres is able to recover a fumble, giving the inmates the ball inside the guards' red zone. On the next play, however, Megget is injured on a dirty tactic at the hands of one of the guards. This prompts Scarboro to bring himself in the game. Crewe protests Scarboro's Involvement but eventually they compose a play that sends Scarboro flying into the end zone, leaving the inmates one extra point away from tying, or a two point conversion away from winning. After a short debate, the cons decide to go for two and the win. They quickly draw up a play that leaves everyone confused. Crewe has trouble getting every to the line and in the proper positions. Moss and Turley look like they have no idea what's going on, Crewe begins to head to the sidelines with his hands in the air, when suddenly the ball is snapped directly to Scarboro as Crewe takes off looking for a pass. Seconds before he's brought down, Scarboro chucks the ball to Crewe who catches it and makes a break for the goal line. A guard grapples Crewe and brings him down but not before Crewe reaches out and just barely puts the nose of the ball over the goal line, making the two point conversion successful and thus winning the game for the inmates.
By this time, the fans have completely switched sides and have been rooting for the cons after seeing what type of players the guards are. At the end of the game, Knauer shakes Crewe's hand and says he knows he had nothing to do with Caretaker's death and he'll back that up. The Warden comes onto the field to berate Knauer and then they notice that Crewe is heading off toward the end of the field where an exit would be. The frantic Warden obtains a gun from one of the guards at orders Knauer to take him down. In a dramatic moment, Knauer has the gun aimed at Crewe, his finger on the trigger, at the last second, Knauer draws back and points out that Crewe simply went to pick up the game ball. Knauer shoves the gun to the Warden and heads to the locker. Battle and Switowski then douse the Warden in gatorade which ends up earning them a week in the hot box. Off screen, Battle exlaims "Who gives a shit?" as he heads to the locker room to celebrate the victory.
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