'Longest Yard': A Two-Bit Quarterback
Friday, May 27, 2005
It has gotten to the point that, with Hollywood's trend of cannibalizing everything from its most beloved classics to its most forgettable mediocrities, a movie critic these days isn't reviewing one movie but two. Not only is the film at hand to be evaluated, but it also must be compared and contrasted with the original movie, which inevitably the new director has butchered/bowdlerized/maimed or -- hey, it can happen -- improved.
To this critic's shame and chagrin, she was unable to see the 1974 version of "The Longest Yard," an acknowledged period classic starring Burt Reynolds in one of his best-loved roles, a cocky convict who leads a ragtag team of fellow inmates against their guards in a (forgive the pun) take-no-prisoners football game. So this review will perforce dispense with the lining up of ledgers, noting what scenes have been deleted or added, what themes emphasized or not, what characters filled out or erased.
But it can safely be stated, even without having seen the original, that Adam Sandler is no Burt Reynolds. And the fact that "The Longest Yard" has turned into an Adam Sandler comedy pretty much tells you everything you need to know about "The Longest Yard" circa 2005. Rather than the adult comedy Reynolds starred in 30 years ago, this one is clearly directed at teenagers, who will no doubt gobble up the hard-core athletics and the sophomoric sexual humor. Admittedly, the football action is bone-crunchingly visceral, but it doesn't really kick in until the last half-hour or so of a movie that spends much more time on getting Sandler's character into jail and establishing just how ruthless the prison guards are. That's bone-crunchingly visceral, too, but that doesn't mean it's any fun.
Sandler plays Paul "Wrecking" Crewe, a former pro football player who was banned from the sport for throwing a game several years ago. When he's nicked for drunken driving he's sent to prison, and through the machinations of an ambitious warden (James Cromwell), he winds up in a Texas penitentiary, where the only thing they like better than electrocuting people is playing football. Crewe is roped into organizing a tune-up game against the guards, who are to a man nasty, brutish and steroid-enhanced; like so many World War II adventures of yore, Crewe's motley bunch is composed of one-of-each by way of Central Casting: the fast-talking weakling, the big dumb lug and the wisecracking best buddy who's always there in a pinch.
That last one, thankfully, is played by Chris Rock, who dials back his usual flashing-eyed mania to deliver the movie's only truly appealing performance. In addition to providing much-needed warmth in an otherwise soulless production, he's responsible for some surprisingly honest throwaway lines having to do with race, all the more welcome in a film that uncritically perpetuates the idea that the team can win only when the brothers sign on. (In another unfortunate case of stereotyping, that big dumb lug is an African American man, who here is portrayed as a sweetly naive noble savage, like the hero in "The Green Mile" combined with William "The Refrigerator" Perry.)
But don't think for a minute that "The Longest Yard" is about anything other than Sandler and his ego; this is an all-out vanity production, from the loving slow-motion shots of Our Hero decked out in flattering shoulder pads and mud-splattered jerseys to a cameo appearance, late in the movie, of his equally irritating sidekick, Rob Schneider. Reynolds shows up for a cameo, too, but what should be an affectionate, respectful grace note somehow is distorted into the painful sight of an aging star literally stuffing himself into a role he has long since outgrown. Whether it's the sight of Reynolds squeezed painfully into a football uniform or the endless footballs-to-the-crotch and tired gay jokes, "The Longest Yard" has the feeling of mutton dressed as lamb.
The Longest Yard (114 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, violence, profanity and drug use.