The Longest Yard
directed by Peter Segal
(Paramount, 2005)

Thirty-one years after his sleeper triumph in the prison-football hybrid hit The Longest Yard, Burt Reynolds returned to the big screen this year in, of all things, director Peter Segal's Longest Yard remake.

This time out, however, it isn't Reynolds playing Paul "Wrecking" Crewe, a former NFL quarterback busted for shaving points and, in the film's opening sequence, busted again for turning his rich, suddenly ex-girlfriend's car into a pile of very used parts.

This time out that honor goes to Adam Sandler, though, lo and behold, Reynolds quickly turns up, as prisoner Nate Scarboro, a former Heisman Trophy winner who's doing time in the same Texas joint where Crewe's been ordered to spend the next three years for entering the junked car business without the vehicle owner's permission. And it might be interesting to know what went through Reynolds' mind as he watched Sandler and Segal take the film that convinced people Reynolds could be much more than a macho muscleman in a very different direction.

Yes, the story remains the same: Crewe isn't even behind bars before Warden Hazen (James Cromwell, who's been around since Hot L Baltimore but is probably better remembered as Farmer Arthur Hoggett in Babe) enlists his help in getting Hazen's prison guard football team up to snuff for its first outing of the season. He's asked -- or shall we say encouraged by use of the parole system -- to put together a prisoners' team to offer the guards a tune-up game.

But if Crewe is dubious about the venture, guard Capt. Knauer is dead set against it -- in a place where the word "dead" is often taken literally. And thus begins a pattern of play and counterplay in which Crewe is ultimately threatened with just about everything a man who's already lost his freedom can be threatened with.

But this is a comedy, after all, despite any serious undercurrents in what's left of the plot. And it isn't long before Crewe has hooked up with a fellow prisoner named Caretaker (Chris Rock), who provides much-needed commentary on just about everything the once and future quarterback has done and is about to do, and the aforementioned Scarboro.

Together they set out to field a team that can deliver a punishing blow to the guards, mostly by recruiting the most oversized and psychotic prisoners they can find eager to deliver punishing blows to the guards. But just being brutal turns out not to be enough. Before long, the prisoners are checking out the guards' X-rays, watching the guards' game films and replacing the guards' steroid pills with estrogen tablets.

And this, of course, points to the advantages remake makers have, especially when the remake is an update. Segal and screenwriter Sheldon Turner had access to a number of options not available to director Robert Aldrich or screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn in 1974: hidden videocam jokes (funny at first, but overlong and overdone), O.J. Simpson jokes and gay jokes -- especially gay cross-dressing-convict-cheerleader jokes.

Also, there's the relaxation of standards since '74. While the remake carries a PG-13 rating for crude and sexual humor, violence, language and drug references, the original was slapped with an R rating -- for crude and sexual humor, violence, language and drug references.

But the big difference in the two films is clearly their approaches to storytelling. For all its faults -- an excess of domestic violence in the opening scenes, a poor explanation of how Crewe turned his team around in the last quarter -- the original Yard focused on the growing relationships between its main characters: Crewe and Caretaker, and, to a lesser extent, Scarboro. And when it works, it works because you find yourself rooting for characters who didn't necessarily suit your fancy on first meeting. No one could accuse either Segal or Turner -- working for MTV Films, no less -- of weighing down their film with any such subtlety.

Instead, they turn the Yard remake into a series of vignettes, jacked up with high-powered music -- everything from rap to "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" -- and brought to a crawl with lots of slow-motion photography. Moreover, both the guards and the prisoners are stereotypes -- lovable at times, but still stereotypes, even by prison-movie standards.

And then there are those unanswered questions, like why would a guy who stacks up police cruisers on a San Diego street wind up in a federal pen in south Texas? And why would ESPN2 decide to broadcast a tune-up game (yes, they do) between the prison guards and a month-old convict team. And why would ESPN enlist as a color man for Chris Berman a prisoner (Steve Reevis) who's known for not speaking?

And at the center of it all, of course, is Sandler, Mr. 2-D himself, demonstrating that despite any recent forays he might have made into adult filmmaking, he remains the master of middle-school humor. He has yet to see a situation he couldn't resolve with a single potty-mouth punch line.

The upshot is that we now have two Longest Yards. I've had my say. Now the choice is yours.

by Miles O'Dometer
26 August 2006

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