How do you follow up The Full Monty? Tentatively, judging from Peter Cattaneo's enjoyable but unambitious second feature. For starters, the similarities are just a little too strong: social conscience and murky lighting rubbing shoulders with feelgood humour and bursts of hope; an ensemble cast plucked from Britain's finest, with the focus falling on a band of five guys, their charismatic leader and a climactic performance which dominates the film, its looming presence allowing for the rehearsal scenes that provide much of the comedy...
Then there's the fact that there's little here we haven't seen before. Umpteen prison movies have already used the putting-on-a-show decoy to cover the inmates' proposed fleeing, while the backstage shenanigans hark back to just about every golden age Hollywood musical. It's little wonder, then, that Cattaneo has felt the need to repeatedly request that Lucky Break be regarded as an entity on its own.
Manage to do that, however, and manage to get past the persistent clichés, telegraphed plot twists and made-for-TV production values, then what you're left with is the good stuff. First up, James Nesbitt makes for a hugely likeable, roguishly charming lead. His disdain for authority, confidence and sly wit make him a natural leader and a natural leading man. And while the acting is as good as you'd expect from an ensemble that boasts Timothy Spall, Bill Nighy and, as the musical-obsessed governor, Christopher Plummer, it's one of only three women on show who steals the movie.
Olivia Williams impressed in the likes of Rushmore and The Sixth Sense, but here she really stands out. While everyone else, however good, reeks of British Character Actor, Williams' luminous presence screams "star". The sub-plot, in which her prison counsellor slowly falls for Nesbitt's cocky con, is the film's strongest element.
Yet it's really the last half hour that'll ensure cinemagoers leave with a grin on their faces. Much of the early business gets stuck in neutral or clunks through the gears, but the final performance/ escape interface slips smoothly into overdrive. Finally the laughs come thick and fast, and Cattaneo hits the form that took The Full Monty all the way to global success.