Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Longest Yard (1974)

          A great sports movie, a memorable comedy, and one of leading man Burt Reynolds’ best films, The Longest Yard is also a potent expression of anti-Establishment rage, channeling the tenor of its time through the unlikely prism of a gridiron saga set behind bars. Directed by action master Robert Aldrich at his sharpest, the movie blends brutal football violence with intense prison clashes to create a pervasive vibe of us-vs.-them tension. The film’s humor emerges organically from character and circumstance, and the script (by Albert S. Ruddy and Tracy Keenan Wynn) is filled with characters who are strangely believable even though many of them should seem absurd. The prison angle justifies the presence of extreme personalities, and the cast—which mostly comprises character actors and real-life athletes—seizes the story’s ample opportunities for super-sized moments.
          Reynolds stars as Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a former pro quarterback whose career was tarnished by a point-shaving scandal. After a fight with his girlfriend, Paul gets drunk and instigates a police chase. Then he’s thrown into a prison run by sports nut Warden Rudolph Hazen (Eddie Albert). Hazen has organized his guards into a football squad, and he expects Paul to coach the team while incarcerated. Paul refuses, so he’s put on backbreaking labor duty. Eventually, Paul accepts the even less enticing offer of quarterbacking a team of inmates during an exhibition game against the guards. Although it’s understood that Hazen expects the guards to win, Paul inspires his fellow convicts by saying the game is a chance to pummel their oppressors. The plot goes through several twists past this point, and interesting relationships develop between Paul, the guards, and the inmates. For some participants, the athletic competition is about demonstrating power and superiority, and for others, it’s an unlikely means of reclaiming human dignity. And if none of this sounds particularly funny, rest assured The Longest Yard is filled with wicked humor, even as the storyline deftly integrates dramatic (and even tragic) elements.
          The centerpiece of the movie is, of course, the big game, which stands alongside the football match in M*A*S*H (1970) as one of the funniest gridiron sequences in movie history. Real-life college football hero Reynolds thrives here, infusing his role with the sardonic attitude that distinguishes his best performances, and Hollywood veteran Albert makes a terrific villain by portraying a man whose greatest weakness is his arrogant reliance on power. Among the large supporting cast, standouts include Michael Conrad as a disgraced NFL player, James Hampton as Paul’s amiable sidekick, and Ed Lauter as the cruel QB of the guards’ team. (Bernadette Peters has a small but amusing role as the warden’s va-va-voom secretary.) The Longest Yard was loosely remade in 2001 as the Vinnie Jones movie Mean Machine, and directly remade in 2005, with Adam Sandler taking over the Reynolds role. Stick with the original.

The Longest Yard: RIGHT ON

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