It’s way too early for comparisons to Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder, or even to Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin, but Adam Sandler and helmer Peter Segal can boast yet another solidly commercial collaboration: “The Longest Yard,” a shrewdly updated yet surprisingly faithful remake of Robert Aldrich’s 1974 football-behind-bars dramedy starring Burt Reynolds. Sandler impressively assumes the Reynolds role here, with strong support by Reynolds himself and a slightly restrained but frequently hilarious Chris Rock. This mass-appeal crowd-pleaser is poised to score sturdy numbers during its opening weekend kick-off. Play-off should be leggy, and followed by huge post-season vid numbers.
The second reprise of an Aldrich pic to hit screens in recent months, following underrated and under-performing “Flight of the Phoenix,” “Longest Yard” rarely strays far from the original playbook scripted by Tracy Keenan Wynn (from a story by producer Albert S. Ruddy, who returns as an exec producer for the remake).
Revised screenplay credited to Sheldon Turner — and possibly enhanced by ad-libs from Sandler, Rock and others — allows more room for broader comedy, whichlets Sandler and Segal (reunited after “Anger Management” and “50 First Dates”) play to their strengths. But rough-and-tumble of climactic gridiron match-up between prisoners and guards is scarcely less violent here than in the R-rated original. Only the language appears to have been sanitized (Rock lobs only a single F-bomb) to obtain a PG-13 rating.
Disgraced former NFL quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe (Sandler) rebels against his role as boy-toy for a rich bitch (played, fleetingly but shrewishly, by an unbilled Courteney Cox Arquette) by drunkenly joyriding in her expensive sports car. Violating terms of an earlier five-year probation for his role in a point-shaving scheme, Crewe winds up in a Texas federal penitentiary.
Warden Hazen (James Cromwell), a football fanatic with political ambitions, wants Crewe to help coach his semi-pro team of prison guards. But Captain Knauer (William Fichtner), the turf-conscious player-coach of the guards, makes it known he doesn’t want Crewe’s help.
Out among the prison population, Crewe gets an even frostier reception. Caretaker (Rock), a wheeler-dealer convict who befriends the otherwise friendless newcomer, explains: The convicts will forgive rape, murder, grand theft auto or writing bad checks, but shaving points in a football game crosses the line. It’s “un-American,” Caretaker says.
With a little help from grizzled sage Nate Scarborough (Reynolds), another NFL veteran doing hard time, Crewe recruits a team of inmates for a practice game against the guards. Joining up are Deacon Moss (former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin), Brucie (Nicholas Turturro) and Torres (Lobo Sebastian).
Rapper Nelly and pro wrestler Bill Goldberg also figure prominently on a team that defies the odds during the climactic, brutally funny half-hour grudge match. As in the original, for Crewe, the game is a shot at redemption. For his players, it’s a chance to take a shot at the guards.
In its time, the original “Yard” was viewed by many as an ersatz companion piece to Aldrich’s 1967 “The Dirty Dozen,” underscoring similarities between criminal behavior and socially sanctioned violence.
Segal’s “Yard” doesn’t place much emphasis on subtext, although it makes some sharp satirical points by having the game attract national TV attention and several real-life sports commentators. (ESPN gets cable broadcast rights.) New version’s final game, though sufficiently brutal, gets a lot more laughs than the earlier edition. Indeed, the remake as whole arguably is a slight improvement over the original, given its somewhat more disciplined tonal consistency.
Still, new pic is so faithful to its source that one major second-act plot development may be genuinely shocking to contemporary viewers (even those who have seen the original).
The final scene effectively reprises the finish of the original, right down to certain camera angles, with one novel twist: a quick cutaway to reaction shot of smiling Burt Reynolds, who appears in context to be granting his blessing to entire project.
Sandler smartly balances the script’s mix of cynicism and sentiment in his ingratiating lead performance. (And he’s physically persuasive as an ex-quarterback.) Reynolds’ subtlety is a nifty balance to Rock’s sarcasm. Cromwell provides an effective menacing counterbalance as the all-powerful warden.
Fichtner, Turturro, Tracy Morgan (as a saucy transvestite), Cloris Leachman (as a batty, horny secretary) and David Patrick Kelly (as a creepy squealer) are stand-outs among the supporting cast. Irvin effortlessly exudes natural screen presence — as does sportscaster Jim Rome in a cameo. Look for Ed Lauter (the player-coach in ’74 “Yard”) in a wink-wink walk-on bit.
Slick tech package includes Dean Semler’s ace lensing at the defunct Santa Fe State Penitentiary. Soundtrack includes many familiar pop standards, including the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)” (cleverly employed for the training sequence).
In a 2001 remake of the same material, footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones played an imprisoned ex-soccer star who leads convicts against guards in Barry Skolnick’s “Mean Machine.”