Adam Sandler is no stranger to brutal sports movies, but this is the first time he’s played a convict. I liked him as a simpleton tackle who uses football as a way to express repressed rage in The Waterboy, but as a prisoner using pigskin to pay back the guards he’s lost in The Longest Yard.
Sandler stars as former NFL quarterback Paul Crewe, once talented and famous, now on parole for illegal gambling and living off his wealthy girlfriend (Courtney Cox). Surly and drunk Crewe takes a six-pack and a luxury automobile for a spin. His parole violated, Crewe goes to jail where the warden (James Cromwell lost without his pig) happens to be a massive fan of football. After being beaten repeatedly by guards, Crewe agrees to put together a team of inmates to run pass rushes against the warden’s men. It’s here that the setup gets sort of confusing, somewhere in between the prison chief’s office and the football field their friendly practice game goes from teaching tool to massive, overblown, ESPN covered competition. If the warden presses Crewe into service to help train his guard team, why he’d allow the game to become something more is never at all clear, despite a half-hearted attempt at blaming political aspirations.
But allow it he does and Crewe, enlisting the help of the prison wisecracker played by Chris Rock, gets other inmates on his side by promising revenge against their jailors. His team isn’t so much interested in winning as they are in a free shot at inflicting pain on the gatekeepers who’ve been pummeling them black and blue. Sandler, who is an effective comedian and has potential as a dramatic actor, never quite sells himself as either a prison hardcase or legitimate football hero. He’s no stud. The Waterboy got around that by making him an idiot savant, a paunchy equipment carrier who succeeded through the power of incredible anger rather than physical prowess. The Longest Yard allows room for no such excuses and Sandler is by nature much too soft and likable to be convincing as a hardened, drunken, asshole.
Instead, Sandler finds himself squinting his way through a film that’s not really suited to his sensibility. He’s stuck playing straight man next to Chris Rock, whose wisecracking quips fail when he’s front and center, but work well when he’s playing second banana. However, this isn’t a comedy exactly and when The Longest Yard is through making jokes and ready to get down to serious knee-crushing business it blows Chris Rock out of the picture. Literally. It’d be funny if the film didn’t play it so tragically, but screenwriter Sheldon Turner’s script tosses Rock aside like a used tissue coated in gasoline and lit on fire. The story doesn’t need him, since Burt Reynolds is here too and takes over the sidekick role after Chris’s incendiary departure.
The Longest Yard by the way, is a remake of the 1974 movie of the same name. Reynolds you may recall starred in the original. Back then he played Sandler’s quarterback position here he’s the team’s wily old veteran. Reynolds had the right gruff, necessary to be Paul Crewe, but he sleepwalks through a role that asks him to be the character’s mentor.
That’s ok though, because the movie isn’t trading on deeply developed character. This is a lesson in high octane body breaking; the film plays on the same sort of gladiatorial mentality that draws us to the bloodiest of kung fu or the worst of Van Damme movies. We’re here for the action, and director Peter Sagal delivers. He starts by casting the biggest humans imaginable (and also Michael Irvin) to fill out his football squad. This group of outlandishly sized behemoth’s is then thrown into each other on a football field where bones shatter, men flip through the air like rag dolls, and Nelly runs for his life. It’s the most brutal, no holds barred football you’ll see anywhere; thank the gods of commerce this isn’t the way the game’s meant to be played or the NFL would quickly run out of players. Kicked off by sharply chosen, blood-pumping musical beats, game footage becomes less about the game and more about building a bigger better action sequence. Sagal makes those big, physical moments ridiculously entertaining, and in doing so will no doubt please his audience.
His audience is anyone who loves a little sports mixed in with their violence. There are a few big laughs in The Longest Yard, but not enough to support it as a comedy. Sandler fans looking for another Happy Gilmore will be mildly disappointed by the movie’s cheap prison humor and propensity for tired, watered down rape jokes. On the other hand, football fans looking for a stirring reel full of merciless hits will be delighted. If the movie struggles, it’s only because it’s never quite certain whether it wants to be taken seriously. Had the script simply chosen to go one way or the other we might have come out with something better. As it is, The Longest Yard is fairly entertaining for a mixed bag of missed opportunity.