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Longest Yard, The (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 27 May 2005
If you can accept Adam Sandler as a professional football player, you’ll find “The Longest Yard” a lot easier to take than if you don’t. In the original version (the same title), Burt Reynolds—who played college ball—had the lead, and was a lot more credible than Sandler is here. (Reynolds also turns up in this version.) But okay, Sandler’s no mass of muscles—but he’s pretty good in this movie anyway. More and more, he’s being Adam Sandler less and less, which is a real blessing for those of us who found many of his earlier starring movies hard to take.

Here, he’s Paul Crewe, a former NFL headliner for Philadelphia; when the movie opens, he’s pretty much of a has-been, leeching off his grasping girlfriend (an unbilled Courtney Cox), making money endorsing products here and there. He hasn’t played ball in eight years—he was sidelined because he shaved points in a game. One night, he gets drunk and spectacularly smashes up his girlfriend’s car. He’s sent to prison.

It’s a tough institution way the hell and gone out on the Texas plains. He hasn’t even gotten off the bus when guards begin roughing him up. Captain Knauer (a very good William Fichtner) is especially hard on him, insisting that he not accept the offer that Warden Hazen (James Cromwell) is sure to make. And make it he does: he wants Paul to coach his award-winning football team made of prison guards. Paul doesn’t have much trouble turning this down—but later Hazen orders Paul to create a team of convicts to give the guard team opponents for practice. And Paul himself will be the coach and quarterback.

Prison’s hard on Paul. As another outsider, Caretaker (Chris Rock) explains to him, cons will forgive another convict anything—except for shaving points in a game, which is what got Paul kicked out of the NFL. Still, with the help of Caretaker and long-time prisoner Nate Scarborough (Burt Reynolds), Paul begins patching a team together. Scarborough himself is an NFL veteran, and a very good coach. Paul sees forming the team as a way of getting a little revenge on Knauer and the arrogant Hazen. The cons see it as a way to get back at the guards. At first, they’re a bunch of misfits who haven’t a clue as to how to function as a team.

Ratty little snitch Unger (David Patrick Kelly) is kept busy scurrying back and forth carrying info about the cons to Knauer and other guards. When all but one of the black convicts refuse to join the team, Paul goes one-on-one in basketball with one of them; he doesn’t win, but he shows that he’s tough and committed. The black guys soon come over. The idea of prisoners squaring off against the very guards who control them catches fire and the climactic game is heavily covered by ESPN and other outlets. And at last the big game is held in a high school stadium.
This is an extraordinarily faithful remake; only a few relatively small details have been changed from the original script by Tracy Keenan Wynn; the new movie even uses the multi-panel technique of the original. The script by Sheldon Turner dutifully includes many regulation Sandler tropes: there’s at least one kaka joke which here is pounded into the ground, the warden’s elderly secretary (Cloris Leachman in an alarming wig) who has the hots for Paul, there’s the usual crude treatment of homosexuals, and of course Sandler is always the coolest dude in town. In the original, in place of kaka the joke dealt with a broken neck—more brutal, to be sure. In the original, the warden’s secretary was Bernadette Peters (also in an alarming wig); the pummeling of the aged is new to the remake. Director Robert Aldrich did feature a cheerleader squad composed of the more girly convicts (singing “You Gotta Be a Football Hero”), but the new movie’s treatment seems more sniggering and insulting.

But director Peter Segal (“50 First Dates”) is beginning to stretch this familiar material, even the familiar Sandler himself. The actor does get a lot of laughs in his opening scenes, but he is being a boorish asshole, too. He’s forgotten why he ever played football, but discovers why all over again, and what it’s like to be part of a team. In Aldrich’s film, he subtly showed how this ragtag gang of misfits and outsiders learned to function as a unit, to have pride in group efforts. There’s less emphasis on this in the new movie, though the change does take place.

Paul’s friendship with Caretaker is much the same as in the first one, but here it’s more taken for granted than presented realistically; there isn’t even one momentary “bonding” scene, while the original had several. But while Rock is busy being funny, Sandler really does sneak in some actual character stuff around the edges.

Rock is funny much of the time, though the uneven sound recording kills some of his jokes. Also, most of the jokes seem written—that is, written by someone other than Chris Rock. Between the screenwriter, Rock and the director, nobody seems concerned about developing an actual character for this talented guy. He’s just Chris Rock, only he’s in prison. But he’s a welcome sight, even if he’s not used as well as he might be. James Hampton played Caretaker in the original. Rob Schneider makes his usual gratuitous appearance.

At first, it seems that Burt Reynolds is in the movie solely because he was the star of the first version, and for the first half of the film is given far too little to do. But at the climax, the director and Sandler graciously grant Reynolds a fitting big scene. I wish he had more of them.

Much of the humor depends on the hugeness of some of the cons (and a couple of the guards), with Bill Goldberg and Joey “Coco” Diaz looming among the largest. Rapper Nelly is a fleet-footed running back, and turns in a pretty good performance off the field, too. Some gags, as with the convict who smuggles in McDonalds grub, tend to be overworked and wear out their welcome.

The original “Longest Yard” was a peculiar movie, half comedy, half drama, but it was a worldwide hit, including in England where it was called “The Mean Machine.” It was popular enough there, in fact, that it was remade in 2001 as the poorly-received “Mean Machine,” substituting soccer for football. So this current movie is actually the third version.

The wide-screen photography by Dean Semler is outstanding; he uses the vast Texas plains (actually New Mexico) surrounding the prison to give a sense of the great wide world outside the prison. And director Segal makes good use of a well-chosen song score; “Spirit in the Sky” is especially well-placed.

With the exception of “The Wedding Singer,” most of Adam Sandler’s earliest movies were best left to his devoted fans; others tended to blanch and shudder—and not to laugh at all. (I’ve rarely spent a more laugh-free two hours than I did watching “The Waterboy,” Sandler’s OTHER football movie.) But more recently he’s begun to temper his persona and to aim his movies at a wider audience. Sometimes this works—“50 First Dates” is pretty good—sometimes it doesn’t—“Anger Management” doesn’t work—but it shows that he’s thinking about his career as a long-term project. He claims never to read reviews of his movies, which is a damned shame; no one is out to get him, and occasionally reviewers really do have good ideas.

But however he’s getting there, he IS getting there bit by bit. “The Longest Yard” is reasonably funny; Sandler is almost convincing as a football player. There is still some unfortunately crude material—some of which, admittedly, is funny, much of which isn’t—but he’s drawing a larger circle around himself, expanding his playing field. This is growth, and growth deserves applause.

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