THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE LONGEST YARD"

Burt Reynolds, by most estimations, was in his prime as an actor during the early 1970’s. One of his most well-regarded films of that era was The Longest Yard. The prison football movie has now been remade with Adam Sandler taking over the starring role. If that seems somewhat unlikely, you’re not alone. Then again, this is the start of the summer movie season – a time in which suspending your disbelief is a requirement.

Sandler plays Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a former pro football player who once got in legal trouble for allegedly shaving points during a game. Paul hasn’t played in six years. His days are spent getting drunk and playing boy-toy to a rich shrew (Courtney Cox Arquette). One night, Paul is arrested for drunk driving and smashing up some police cars. He is sentenced to three years in prison at the Allenville Penitentiary in Texas.

The man in charge, Warden Hazen (James Cromwell), has specifically arranged for Paul to be transferred to Allenville. He operates a prison league football team in which the guards are the players. Hazen really wants a winning season and thinks Paul can help give his team a competitive edge. The head guard – and star player - is Captain Knauer (William Fichtner), who doesn’t want help from any prisoner. He is especially resentful Paul’s plan to put together a team of inmates for a warm-up game. The idea is that the inmates will represent an “easy win” which will boost the confidence of the guards.

Getting such a team together is not easy. Some of the inmates know about Paul’s past misdeeds and don’t trust him. With the help of fellow a con nicknamed “Caretaker” (Chris Rock), Paul eventually manages to get a team in place. His main selling point is that joining the team would allow the inmates to legally get physically aggressive with the often sadistic guards. Among those who sign up are a quick-footed running back (played by rapper Nelly). Burt Reynolds also co-stars, this time playing former Heisman winner Nate Scarborough who steps in to help coach. To everyone’s surprise, the convict team turns out to be pretty good – and they want to be more than an easy win for the guards. When the warden realizes that Paul and company are taking the game seriously, he starts to panic and tries to find a way to make sure his guys don’t lose. If that requires dishonesty, then so be it. It doesn’t help that ESPN plans on broadcasting the game.

The original version of The Longest Yard came out in 1974; I was only 6, and therefore not old enough to see it. Although I have an affinity for 70’s cinema, I still have not seen the picture to this day (although I plan to do so in the near future). My guess, though, is that was probably a little darker in tone than this remake is. It seems to me that if you combined sadistic guards and hard-as-nails prisoners, there would probably be some real animosity. Then – if you allowed both sides to duke it out on a football field – that animosity might bubble to the surface in ways that opened the floodgates for genuine, honest-to-goodness violence. It would be the one instance in which these two groups of people could legitimately take it all out on each other.

The problem I had with this new version is that it ignores the inherent edginess of the material. There’s a huge disconnect between the plot’s unassailable darkness and the lightness of the film’s tone. For starters, the prisoners in this movie all seem so happy. It’s like they’re serving time on “Saturday Night Live” rather than in a federal penitentiary. This is especially true of Caretaker, who drops so many one-liners that we can only assume he is serving hard time for telling lots of bad jokes. The movie uses the very broad comedic style that is common in Adam Sandler movies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that style, except that this material positively screams for a slightly harder edge. We never get any real feeling of hatred between guards and prisoners, nor do we ever believe that the football game could ever get really ugly. The screenplay tries to add a serious touch halfway though by killing off a character, but the sequence just seems really out of place compared to the relative frivolity of everything else.

This problem comes to a head in the finale. We should believe that something really hangs in the balance. What would happen if the convicts won? Would the guards be extra sadistic to them back in the prison itself? Would the cons feel suddenly superior to the guards, therefore causing anarchy? And what exactly would the warden do to Paul if he actually put together a winning team? The film has the warden threaten extra jail time, but nothing ever comes of it. The ending of the movie maddeningly sidesteps all these issues. By taking a light comedic tone, The Longest Yard paints itself into a corner. It can no longer ask the questions we most want answered because those questions are deeper and darker than the movie cares to go.

It’s also worth noting that the film has a somewhat nasty homophobic streak. There are lots of jokes about things like prison rape, and there’s a running gag with Tracy Morgan leading a gang of flamboyantly effeminate prisoners. These characters are introduced only to be laughed at.

Those things said, The Longest Yard is an innocuous – and oftentimes amusing – movie to watch. The performances are generally good. While it’s not easy to buy Adam Sandler as a former pro quarterback or Chris Rock as a lifer, they are nevertheless skilled comedians who know how to deliver a laugh, even when the material is shaky. James Cromwell and William Fichtner are character actors who always bring a touch of class to anything they do, which is proven again here. Burt Reynolds and Nelly, meanwhile, manage to inject some personality into slightly underdeveloped characters. (Other than Paul, we never learn what any of these men have done to wind up in the slammer.) The supporting characters – many coming from the NFL or the pro wrestling world – provide some funny moments too.

Director Peter Segal (who also collaborated with Sandler on Anger Management and 50 First Dates) understands comic pacing, and he does a good job with the football scenes. I’ve never cared for the sport personally but the big game shown in the film did hold my attention. (It would have held it even more had it contained that aforementioned sense of danger, though.)

Perhaps the best way to put it is this: The Longest Yard has some good qualities, but they aren’t strong enough to compensate for the fundamental miscalculation in tone. This should be a comedy all right, but a gritty one. The story concept seems designed for a dark, R-rated film with heavy doses of edgy humor. This remake is a PG-13 affair with a broad, often slapsticky style. Diverting though it may be to watch, I could never shake the feeling that The Longest Yard was soft when it should have been hard, nice when it should have been nasty, and mindless when it should have been provocative.

( 1/2 out of four)


The Longest Yard is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, violence, language and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.

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