A film review by Craig J. Koban








1974, R, 121 mins.

Burt Reynolds: Paul Crewe / Eddie Albert: Warden Hazen / Ed Lauter: Captain Knauer / James Camptan: Caretaker


Directed by Robert Aldrich / Written by Tracy Keenan Wynn

I will start this review with a rather modest question, dear readers:

Why was Burt Reynolds so damn cool in the 1970’s? 

There is no doubt that he definitely peaked in terms of popularity in that decade and anyone that doubts the assertion that he was the Brad Pitt sex-symbol of this period obviously has not seen THE LONGEST YARD, long considered by many to be one of the best sports films ever made, if not one of the all-time great football pictures.  

Yet, there is something almost intangible about the charm that Reynolds exudes in the film, as well as in some of his most noteworthy films of the 70’s, like WHITE LIGHTENING (1973), GATOR (1976), SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) and DELIVERANCE (1972), the latter which is still one of his truly best performances.  He, much like Pitt, has that sort of easy-going and effortless charisma that captured the hearts of many women of the time as well as making him the envy of most men.  

At the risk or regurgitating clichés, women loved Burt and men wanted to be like him.  He also has the unique ability (that many modern screen comedians lack) to allow us to invest in him, like him, and have fun with him without really working very hard at it.  Reynolds never has to work hard for a laugh from us with wildly outrageous antics when slight, sly, and subtle gestures of the body, a whimsical eyebrow lift, or a couple of lines of wonderfully deadpanned dialogue will suffice.  To go further with this, I think that the true genius of Reynolds as an actor can truly be felt in YARD, where I think he achieves the improbable: He creates a completely lecherous, foul, and cruel figure in former football quarterback Paul Crewe and ultimately makes us cheer for him. 

Crewe is not the relatively squeaky clean "bandit" that drives around all day looking for fun.  No, his Paul Crewe is a character with definitive demons in his closet.  He was a quintessential All-American boy, a gifted athlete with looks, talent, and vigor that was poised to be one of the legends of the football world.  Yet, he loses everything by shaving points off of the scoreboard during one infamous game that later costs him his career.  Not only that, but he did it with very little remorse.  If that were not bad enough, at the beginning of YARD he is an unsympathetic drunk that beats and abuses his girlfriend, steals her priceless car, leads the police on a wild goose chase, destroys the car, later insults the perusing officers in a local bar, subsequently gets in a brawl with them and is very quickly escorted to a state penitentiary…and this all happens before the opening credits are through. 

Yes, Paul Crewe may appear to be one of Reynolds’s least likeable personas, at least on a superficial level.  However, the miracle of his performance here is that, despite his various proclivities with unruly behaviour, we nevertheless begin to sympathize for him and subsequently cheer him on right through until the final end credits roll by.  Realistically, there is nothing that Paul Crewe had coming to him that he did not deserve.  He was the shaper of his own demise and downfall.  Yet, it is through Reynolds’ keen and astute ability to play Crewe with a level of irrepressible magnetism and sardonic sense humor that wins us over to him very soon.  Crewe is really a jerk on paper and any other actor might have failed at convincing us to root for him, but not Reynolds.  Crewe is a man of unquestionable moral ambiguity; he is not the embodiment of a classic heroic figure or protagonist.  He’s actually kind of a hybrid of both, a man we root for despite his misgivings.  And, c’mon, when Reynolds gives us that characteristic swagger, droll and simple delivery that can make even serous lines ring with hilarity, and a few tongue-in-cheek glances and reactions, then clearly it’s really hard not to like him. 

THE LONGEST YARD is not a great movie because it’s revealing about the sport of football, nor is it a grand and introspective meditation on sports in general or a realistic portrayal of prison life (heaven’s no).  The film exists and works as a demonstration of raw star appeal.  YARD is a success because of Reynolds and the type of simple command he has in every scene.  He owns this film and makes every scene that he occupies work, and is great at balancing huge laughs with some restrained and understated drama that is not forced down our throats.  On the audio commentary of the recently released Special Edition of YARD, the producer Albert Rudy (who produced THE GODFATHER) made an interesting point: THE LONGEST YARD, on paper, was never meant to be a comedy, but a prison drama.  This is a testament to just how good Reynolds is as an actor, who was able to see the inherent humor and perplexity of the premise and make it work by infusing it with the right level of irreverence.  It was Reynolds' spirit, inspired gift at funny improvisation, and comic timing that made YARD a truly winning film.  Any other actor would have drove the material down to the ground on serious notes that would have felt overwrought.   

YARD is also a rather interesting hybrid of genres.  It’s a wacky and offbeat sports picture married with the conventions of the prison film (think an adult BAD NEWS BEARS meets THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, with decidedly less serious and somber overtones).  After Crewe’s run-in with the law, he is rather expeditiously sent to a Florida prison and is very much treated like every other roughneck in there.  However, he soon meets the prison Warden who, oddly enough, offers him an opportunity to help train his prison’s semi-pro football team in exchange for better treatment and favors, I guess.  Crewe, in a true Reynold-sian rebellious flavor, flatly refuses, being the guileless nihilist that he is, and maybe because, dammit, he just does not like the Warden, the guards, or the prison at all.   

However, Crewe begins to develop an idea amidst all of the chaos and depravity that is prison life.  What if he were to train and coach a prison team of his very own made up of filthy degenerates that would love to take cheap shots at prison guards that they hate for four quarters? This idea seems too good to be true, and by appealing to the Warden’s egotistical nature, he manages to convince him (he wryly tells him that the match would be a piece of cake for the guards, seeing that they are a seasoned group of athletes battling a ragtag group of misfits).  Not only that, but who in their right mind would fail to see the endless fun, as a prisoner, of inflicting pain of the men that have made their lives a living hell? 

Crewe assembles an eclectic group of inmates, to be sure, and ones whose own crimes make Crewe look like an innocent babe in the woods in retrospect.  The rest of the team is sort of more of a shaky assemblage of degenerate scum: we get Richard Keil (later of James Bond villain fame) as a seven foot brut who is kind of soft and gentle on the inside.  We also get a martial arts expert who apparently is one of the deadliest men alive with his hands, not to mention the semi-obligatory figure of Caretaker (in a good performance by Jim Hampton) who is the figure who can get Crewe whatever he wants when he wants.  Only in the movies can a prisoner ever get the impossible with very little effort, but I digress.  Nevertheless, Crewe begins to realize throughout the team's training that there is a bigger opportunity to turn this “revenge team” into a “winning team,” which would give the inmates a sweeter sense of vindication by actually beating the more experienced guards than just sucker punching them for the game.  Unfortunately, as the Warden catches wind of this, he gives Crewe an ultimatum – lose the game or spend most of your life in jail.  This is salt on the wound for Crewe, who faces yet another sporting humiliation. 

Does he give in and become a heel yet again?  Did Ditka coach “da Bears”? 

I think that anyone even modestly familiar with the conventions of the modern sports picture will clearly be able to see how the film ends.  Yes, the final act is the “big game” where everything is on the line, and yes the outcome seems a bit preordained.  Yet, the pleasure in watching THE LONGEST YARD is not in finding out what happens, but the journey it takes getting there.  If Reynolds did not save the day at the end it would be some sort of sick, cruel joke on the audience for standing by this bad boy with confidence for two hours.  The end is anti-climatic at its core, but it still works well like some of the final boxing scenes in a few of the ROCKY sequels.  We know that Balboa will triumphantly win the day, but we still invest in the final fight which still remains surprisingly involving, action packed, and oddly tense.  In YARD we get the standard sports fixings – the hero who sort of gives up at the big game, takes an about-face, re-evaluates things, and tries to come from behind for an absolute victory which is only apparently achievable during the final dying seconds.  We get that moment in the end, forever shot in the slow motion that would later be the norm of future and lesser sports pictures, but here we still are glued to our seats despite the inevitability of it all.  The final few minutes of THE LONGEST YARD are surprisingly gripping.  

So, ultimately, why do we care so much for a bunch of thieving and murdering criminals?  Are they not the real villains and protagonists?  Outside of Reynolds’ wit and disarming perseverance, I think the key here is in the code of ethics the opposing sides have, or lack there of in terms of the guards.  The criminals are a mean and despicable group to be sure, but at least they abide by a certain code of ethics and stick to them.  The guards, who should be the champions of law and order, are the cagey and uncompromising SOB’s of the film who lack scruples altogether.  The acts that the guards are engaging in are hardly any better or worse than what the criminals did on the outside world, and the fact that they did it in uniform makes it doubly perverse.  It’s no small wonder, then, why we root for the criminals. 

THE LONGEST YARD may not be the masterstroke piece of 1970’s cinema that everyone would like to remember it to be, but there is no denying that it’s surely the first great modern sports picture.  I don’t truly recall any memorable sports films coming out before it, and many other similar themed films about athletes flourished in its wake (THE BAD NEWS BEARS, SLAPSHOT, even ROCKY, to a small degree, were successes because of the LONGEST YARD legitimizing the sports genre during a time where it lacked commercial credibility).  Ultimately, there have been much better films about sports or the game of football as a whole (see the recent FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS for proof of that), not to mention more consequential films about incarceration.  When it comes right down to it, THE LONGEST YARD is a classic because it demonstrates how to use the then emerging Burt Reynolds - a movie star if there ever was one - to his finest.  The film did not cement Reynolds as one of the pre-eminent stars of the decade, but it acted as a catalyst for his success, and the role of Paul Crewe played off of all of his strengths.  YARD, to this very day, remains Reynolds’ best film that he has ever headlined.   I mean, when Crewe hands over the game ball to the malevolent warden at the film’s conclusion and vehemently and softly scolds at him to “Stick this in your trophy case," it’s sure hard not to stand up and cheer for the guy!


2005, PG-13, 113 mins.

Paul "Wrecking" Crewe: Adam Sandler / Caretaker: Chris Rock / Coach Scarborough: Burt Reynolds / Warden Hazen: James Cromwell / Erroll Dandridge: Walter Williamson / Deacon Moss: Michael Irvin / Earl Megget: Nelly / Skitchy Rivers: Edward Bunker

Directed by Peter Segal / Written by Tracy Keenan Wynn and Sheldon Turner / Based on the story by Albert S. Ruddy

"The Longest Yard (double-sided)" Movie Poster

I will start this review with another rather modest question, dear readers:

Who in their right mind thought that it would be a great idea to remake the classic Burt Reynolds' flick THE LONGEST YARD and turn it into an Adam Sandler comedy?

I don’t know…beat’s me? 

However, I will come out and say with some level of careful restraint that, yes, I have been generally forgiving to the modern studios for remaking the classics from the past.  I guess that I should be from the old school mentality in which remakes are sort of a cinematic sacrilege (see Gus Van Sant’s disastrous and completely unnecessary remake of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO).  I guess remakes have almost become a genre in their own right, and I personally have my own criteria as to what makes a remake work well. 

In a twofold manner, remakes are successfully handled when (a) they maintain a certain level of faithfulness to the original that inspired it and (b) the makers of the re-imagined version find fresh and energizing ways at telling an old story in a new way.  Last year’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and ALFIE knew all too well how to be accountable to this criteria, especially CANDIDATE, which amazingly was able to take one of the great classic suspense thrillers of the last 40 years and channel it into a modern day parable that was amazingly tense and energized. 

Unfortunately for this new version of THE LONGEST YARD, director Peter Segal and actor Adam Sandler are able to deliver on one out of two mandates for victorious screen remakes.  I will compliment their efforts by saying that, frankly, they are very, very faithful (almost stridently so) to the original film and their love and respect for it is clear with the film.  It takes the plot, characters, and heck, even lines of specific dialogue and camera shots from the original and appropriates it rather thoroughly.

 The large problem with this remake is that it does nothing to add or reinvigorate the old film, nor does it feel the need to spice up the story for contemporary audiences.  This new LONGEST YARD is ultimately redundant and completely needless, a remake that is terribly miscast, lacks the punch and energy of the original, and is completely unable to find that exact and oftentimes difficult middle-ground between drama and comedy that the original knew so well.  Watching this new version is like looking at a bad photocopy of an original document that you wanted reproduced.  Sure, it looks and reads the same, but it just is not as crisp, polished, and aesthetically competent as the original.  And not only that, but Adam Sandler replacing Burt Reynolds as the lead?!  

Now, I have been somewhat lukewarm in my taste for Sandlerian cinema.  I think that he, much like another screen funny man – Robin Williams – is always better when he plays against type.  Sandler was fantastic in last year’s SPANGLISH, and even his last comedy, 50 FIRST DATES, was much better handled than his past works of so-called hilarity.  Truth be told, he has been in many films that I have hated over the last ten years, like the annoying WEDDING SINGER, the tragically unfunny BILLY MADISON, the formulaic miscarriage that was BID DADDY, the contrived ANGER MANAGEMENT, and the grand daddy of all of his stinkers, the horrendously obnoxious and overbearing stinker LITTLE NICKY.   In many of his earlier comedies, Sandler’s push for jokes and laughs were apparently less than subtle: he would scream, punch, kick, and insult his way for would-be chuckles.  Maybe that’s why he’s more disquieting in his charisma in SPANGLISH, for example, because he played a nice guy that was more paranoid in his normalcy than he was ostentatious.   

You would think that, giving his cheerfully nihilistic approach to some of his past characters, that Sandler would have been better suited to play an antagonist (like a prison guard, perhaps?) than that of Paul Crewe.  Nevertheless, it’s the less-than-inspired casting that tries to fit Sandler into the role that was oozing with confidence and low-key swagger by Burt Reynolds before him.  Alas, Sandler seems like a poor fit for the vigilant and, let’s face it, bad boy protagonist that was Reynolds’ Crewe.  The problem here is that Sandler plays the role a bit too earnestly and congenially  when some of his past trademark antagonism and vilification with authority figures would have been a blessing.  Not only that, but I just could not buy Sandler as a “seasoned athlete” (as he is described by one of the characters in the film) as and former star quarterback.  Nope.  Sorry.  No dice.  All through the film I was pondering, gee, this film needs him as a slimy prison guard and another actor with more of a physical stature, raw animalistic energy and sex appeal, not to mention a penchant for sly, self-referential humor that is not forced on us.  This anti-hero, in a weird way, would have been prime real estate for The Rock’s talents  (imagine his character from the criminally under-rated RUNDOWN and you’ll see what I mean). 

Oh well, Sandler’s a bust as the main character, but what about the rest of the film?  Well, it’s faithful to the original in an almost obsessive and narrow minded way.  The film opens like the original during which we see the former All-American football hero now disgraced drunk Paul Crewe (Sandler) as he has a tipsy fight with his girlfriend, played by Courtney Cox-Arquette, whose performance is a tricky combination of fiery bitterness and trying to keep her bosom from falling out of her low-cut dress during the numerous times she leans forward. 

Crewe, unlike the original, does not get really violent with her (Reynolds, on the audio commentary for the original’s DVD, sort of matter-of-factly states that they could “never get away with a scene like that today”…boy was he right).  Instead, in pure Sandler-esque mischievous merriment, he locks her in a closet, steals her car, and, like the original, gets in a high-speed chase with the police.  He later gets stopped by the cops and, like in the original, manages to spout out some funny zingers about one of the shorter cops.  Reynolds knew the power of simple, improvised deadpan verbal shots, but Sandler here is in full verbal overkill mode.  His first putdown sufficed, but the insults go on and on. 

Anyway, like the original, Crewe trashes the car and gets sent to an upstate prison.  Like the original, he is quickly escorted to the Warden of the prison, played in a performance (that is one of the remake’s few saving graces) by the snickering and slimy James Cromwell.  Like the original, the Warden wants Crewe to help head up coaching duties on his prison’s semi-pro team of guards.  The other guards themselves look less like actual redneck prison officials as they do look and come across like professional wrestlers trying to play convincing prison officials.  Oh wait, most of the guards are played by professional wrestlers, who are so inhumanly juiced up that it’s a miracle that any normal team on the planet could beat these guys.   The guards in the original were mean and belligerent, but not the hulked-out tanks that these guys are, who seem to take steroids like it was morning coffee.  In one of the film’s most unintentionally funny moments, one of the guards grabs his prescription pill bottle that states “steroids” on it.  This was not the joke, though, but the lead- up to another joke.  Funny, but I was laughing at the pill bottle more than anything that followed it.  I did not know that doctors willfully gave out prescriptions like that with such simple labels on it.

Nevertheless, Crewe begrudgingly takes on the Warden’s subsequent demand that he coach a team of prison misfits to go up against his prison team.  Like the original, Sandler’s crew is made up of similar criminal scum that seem miles removed, at least in terms of vileness and maliciousness, from the original’s group of murderous convicts.  This film kind of sentimentalizes them more into comic caricatures that come across as more silly and moronic than scary.  The original’s convicts were stereotypes, to be sure, but you always felt that they were bad men that were in prison for a reason.  Most of the convicts Crewe pulls in during the course of the remake seem much more agreeable than the average rapist, murderer, or thief, but I digress. 

Needless to say, Crewe trains the hapless bunch to be winners, takes them to the final game (which this time is covered by ESPN 2, for some reason they manage to get them to cover it) with the help of an old 1955 Heisman Trophy winner, now inmate, played by old Mr. Crewe from the original himself: Burt Reynolds.  He is so mismanaged and misguided here that someone seems to have forgotten to give a man of his comic timing something more consequential to do.  And not only that, but let’s do a little math here.  1955 trophy winner?  It’s 2005 now, 50 years…hmmmm…how he manages to actual get on field and run around with the other inmates is beyond me.  Anyhow, the team looks poised to beat the guards until the unscrupulous Warden convinces Crewe to shave points off the game and, like the original, Crewe is forced with either losing the game and his respect or winning it and gaining it? 

I sense some déjà vu coming on, don’t you? 

That’s precisely the problem with this remake – it just fails to generate any new interest.  The 1974 version did have a paint-by-numbers plot that was anti-climatic to its core, but it was one of the first great modern sports pictures that others followed suit.  The original’s story worked and was genuinely exciting if you look at it in context, but this new one does not pain to do anything fresh with it.  Why tell a formulaic sports story that fans of the original know so impeccably a produce such a piercingly faithful adaptation that lacks the veracity to acknowledge how old fashioned it is and do something innovative with it?  By them time Sandler’s Crewe picks up the game winning ball, gives it to the Warden, and – again, like the original – tells him to “stick it" in his trophy case, I am left lamenting, “What’s ultimately the point?”   

Oh wait, they did add a considerable amount of new filler, like some enormously lazy and wildly offensive jokes about homosexuals that bathe in raging stereotypical waters.  My God, the jokes here at the homosexual inmates' expense are about as dated as an Al Jolson film.  Add to that mix some amazingly manufactured product placement (I've never seen McDonald’s featured so prominently in a prison film), not to mention some would-be hilarity in the form of bad sight gags, unfunny bits about overweight people, sex obsessed old women, and an ill-taken shot of estrogen by one of the prison guards and it all makes for a long trek through this comedy. 

And another thing, the whole mood of this film is wrong.  The original felt more like a portrait of how lowlife’s were rebelling against their oppressive superiors.  In this version, it seems more about just winning a football game to be triumphant than it does about resistance and surviving, both mentally and physically.  The only participant in this remake that manages to break free of its unfettering willingness to be faithful to the original is Chris Rock, who manages to generate some great laughs in his role of Caretaker. 

In the annals of recent remakes, this LONGEST YARD is pretty crummy overall.  I looked at it as I do with any film, regardless of genre, and thought about whether it succeeds or fails based on the needs of its sort.  I give this remake two stars because it more or less succeeds at being completely faithful to the original, but beyond that and adhering to my other demand that it does something effervescent and alive with old material, this one is a failure.  When all is said and done, rent the original, which just got released in a glorious remastered DVD Special Edition.  Not only will you get the same film, but a much better one as well.  More than anything, after leaving this remake I was thinking about what its director, Peter Segal, said about it in a recent magazine article:

“There’s a fine line between choosing the kinds of movies that are worthy of remaking and others that are not…I certainly think that you’re in safer territory the further you are away from the original.” 

Peter, Peter, Peter…it does not matter how far you are away from the original but rather what you do with the remake to segregate it apart from the original as a stand-alone film.  I think he and the rest of the participants in the new LONGEST YARD missed this point.

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