Judge Patrick Bromley wishes the director had found a way to work a souped-up black Trans Am into this prison football movie.
First down. Ten years to go.
Paramount takes a page from Universal's playbook and re-releases one of its own catalog titles, complete with a couple of new special features, in an effort to promote a new Adam Sandler-starring remake of The Longest Yard. (The movie has already been remade once, overseas: the Vinnie Jones-helmed Mean Machine.)
But is it worth the double-dip? And do we really want to encourage this sort of thing?
Facts of the Case
When disgraced former All-American quarterback Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds, Boogie Nights) goes to prison for roughing up his girlfriend (Anitra Ford, Invasion of the Bee Girls and a stint as one of "Barker's Beauties" on the game show The Price is Right) and leading the police on a drunken high-speed chase, he finds himself an unpopular man among the inmates—who happen to take football very seriously. Thankfully, the prison's warden (Eddie Albert, Green Acres) offers Crewe a chance to cut down his sentence, but at a price: He must organize a team of prisoners to play in a game against the semipro Guards team, led by the vicious Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter, True Romance). It's up to Crewe and his two closest friends on the inside, team manager Caretaker (James Hampton, otherwise known as Michael J. Fox's dad in Teen Wolf) and coach Nate Scarboro (Michael Conrad, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Hill Street Blues) to assemble a team for a fight-to-the-finish game of Prisoners versus Guards.
The Longest Yard couldn't be made today—an ironic statement, considering that the only reason for the film's reemergence on DVD is the fact that yes, it is being made today. I haven't seen the remake yet; it isn't due out in theaters for a couple of weeks at this writing, and while it would be unfair for me to comment on a movie for which I have seen only the trailers (though, if those are any indication, I feel like I've got a pretty good idea what to expect), I do know that it's a fairly broad comedy in the tradition of star Adam Sandler's filmography. What I should have said is that The Longest Yard of 1974 couldn't be made today. It's too much a product of its time to have the same kind of contextual undercurrent—the same relevance that it had when it was released. That may sound like a lot of nonsense—we are, after all, talking about a football movie—but without even looking too deeply, you may see that I'm onto something (which, for a writer, is a good deal more encouraging than being onto nothing).
At the center of The Longest Yard—in most other ways an only slightly better-than-average sports comedy-drama—is a mistrust of authority and anger at the establishment. Like I said, that's not necessarily a deep insight; it's a movie about a prison's population seeking to overthrow those who imprison them—even if that revolt takes place only on the football field, and only for one afternoon. But one has to consider the time in which the film was made. Easy Rider, released only five years before, had changed cinema. The rebel yell of Hopper and Fonda had carried through into the decade that followed, permeating even genre films like a Kirk Douglas western, 1975's Posse, or a Burt Reynolds football vehicle like The Longest Yard. This is an angry movie with a lot to be angry about. The Vietnam war still loomed heavy on the public consciousness. President Nixon's Watergate scandal had occurred only one year before. Race relations in the country were still, to put it mildly, tense—something that plays a huge part in the hostility present in the original Longest Yard (and which, in this age of political correctness, I can't imagine will even be addressed in the remake—and if it is, it will most likely be written off as a goof). The movie asks you to root for The Underdog, while willingly acknowledging that The Underdog is made up of murderers and rapists; sure, they're bad and they're wrong, but they're nothing compared to the Guys in Charge.
But enough about theme and context; that stuff is boring. Does the movie stand on its own, removed from the climate in which it was made? In other words, does it still play? Sure, I guess, though I'll admit I'm slightly biased in that I'm far more interested in the aspects of the film I've already talked about. The rest is just guys playing football in a prison. In that regard, the movie (mostly) works; it's a fiercely tough, foul-mouthed and sometimes desperately funny (not that the film is desperate, but that the humor comes out of the characters' desperation—which, for a movie set in a prison, is spot-on) film whose influence can be seen in such later sports comedies as Slap Shot and Major League. For fans of Burt Reynolds (and anyone who doesn't love the Bandit is downright un-American), the film is worth seeing for his performance alone. The Longest Yard delivers what might be the quintessential Reynolds character—he's funny (enough so that the film is considered to be a comedy, which, as writer-producer Albert Ruddy points out more than once on the DVD special features, was not the original concept) and arrogant, flawed and tough. Other films would pick and choose different shades of the Burt found here, but The Longest Yard finds them all working together in a single performance.
Not all of it works, though. Football photography, for one, seems to have come quite a long way (as evidenced in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, or last year's excellent Friday Night Lights, both of which contained some astonishing game sequences). Most of the work here consists of long shots—a kind of game overview, as opposed to being right there with the players. The editing is often choppy. The actors are uneven. Most problematic, though, are the tone issues. I'll always admire a film that doesn't feel the need to stick to one consistent tone or genre, but the filmmakers don't seem to have been able to make it work here; the dramatic shifts sometimes feel like they've been imported from another film—one character's fate in particular seems to be present to make the final game "more personal."
Paramount releases this new Lockdown Edition of The Longest Yard, presumably to improve upon the original barebones release (though we both know it's to drum up interest in a certain big summer movie headed our way). While I can't compare the picture or sound quality to the original release without having it at hand to reference, I can say that I wasn't all that impressed with either on the Lockdown Edition—and, to be fair, nowhere does it say that either of the two was remastered or retooled for the new release. The image is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, showing a considerable amount of source defect and grain, and having some color timing issues. It doesn't look horrible for a film that's over 30 years old, but when you consider the fact that studios like Warner Bros. and Criterion are putting out flawless transfers of films more than 20 years older than this one, you've got to wonder why their competition isn't willing to put a little more time in. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is faithful to its mono roots, but once again I have to ask why some more effort wasn't made to at least offer a 5.1 option; the mono track doesn't offer enough punch for a sports film.
Where the new release does excel—at least, over the first edition—is in the special features department (not hard to do, considering its predecessor doesn't seem to have had any supplemental material). The first, and possibly best, bonus feature is a commentary track by star Burt Reynolds and writer-producer Albert S. Ruddy. It's great to hear Reynolds tell stories about the production, and he and Ruddy (who has one of those great gargling-with-glass-and-asphalt voices) have a good time, but after a while there are long gaps of silence broken only by comments like "Oh, this is a great scene." There are also a couple of making-of featurettes, the movie's original trailer, and—surprise!—an "exclusive look" at the 2005 remake of the film, in which Reynolds has a role as the elder player-turned-coach—I guess to bring his career full circle.
I liked The Longest Yard more for what it says about the time in which it was made than as a stand-alone movie—there are a dozen other football flicks that are just as good or better, but few which capture their era as well as this one does. If you already own the movie, the upgrade is up to your discretion—the bonus material, which is the only reason to trade up, ranges from watchable to gratuitous. If you don't have The Longest Yard and want to pick it up, getting the Lockdown Edition is a no-brainer—especially considering that Paramount is selling it a lower retail price than the original.
Paramount is found guilty of double-dipping and shameless plugging, but Burt Reynolds is free to hit the highway and outrun Smokey till the end of time.
And with that, we cue the music.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Actor Burt Reynolds and Writer-Producer Albert S. Ruddy
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