I believe it was Chris Rock who, while hosting some sort of reunion for Saturday Night Live alums, quipped that the people in the room had made more bad movies than any other group in the country. In a competitive field, Rock may be the chief offender. A vehicle not just for SNL alums Rock and Adam Sandler but also for ESPN stars Dan Patrick and Chris Berman, the newly released remake of 1974’s The Longest Yard might seem doomed from the outset. Not so. As long as one does not insist on comparing it frame by frame with the original, the new film is quite entertaining. Deploying the old plot as a basis for Sandler and Rock’s comedic skills, the remake shoots for laughs and for aggressive athletic competition and hits its mark with some regularity.
As in the original, the film tells the story of Paul Crewe (Adam Sandler in the role originally played by Burt Reynolds), a former MVP quarterback, now ostracized from the game after being implicated in a point-shaving scandal. Dependent on the wealth of his dominating girlfriend (Courteney Cox), a drunk and frustrated Crewe takes off in her Bentley (to the tune of the song from the original, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special”). When she reports the car stolen, Crewe finds himself in a high-speed chase televised live on local TV. He is pulled over by the cops (one of whom is played by ESPN’s Dan Patrick), who recognize him and exchange one-liners with him. Crewe then takes off and, in a final act of rebellion, destroys the Bentley by causing a massive pileup. Surrounded by mangled police cars, Crewe emerges unscathed, still holding his beer, and announces proudly that he didn’t spill a drop. As a news helicopter hovers above him, he shouts to his girlfriend, “I think we need to start seeing other people.”
Replacing Burt Reynolds in this starring role, Sandler has a tough act to follow. Reynolds inhabited the role of a jaded, aging football star quite effectively. He was also better at deadpan humor; when asked for instance why dumped his girlfriend’s car in the lake, he responds, “I couldn’t find a carwash.” Not a great line, but the smirk and delivery made it work. It takes a little time to find Sandler credible in this role but eventually he works his way into the part.
Most of the action of course takes place in the prison where Crewe serves his time. In this case, the location is a desert in Texas, a state that “takes two things seriously, prisons and football.” Caught between sadistic guards and a politically ambitious warden (played nicely by James Cromwell), Crewe is enlisted to establish a convict football team to scrimmage against the semi-pro team of prison guards. Suffering both the conspiratorial tactics of the guards and skepticism from inmates who know him as a sell-out, Crewe eventually puts together a pretty good team, with the help of Caretaker (Chris Rock), who says he was so bad an athlete in school that he got picked after the white guys, and old-timer, Nate Scarborough (played by Burt Reynolds).
Almost everything in the new version is exaggerated for comic effect. Here are a few examples. The cross-dressing, convict cheerleaders, who made only brief appearances during the big game in the original, have much larger roles in this film; there is also a larger dose of macho prison-shower humor. Also expanded is the role of the warden’s secretary, a young Bernadette Peters in the original and here an aging Cloris Leachman, complete with a Marge Simpson hairdo and a sexual appetite that makes her a female version of Austin Powers. Her pursuit of Crewe, every frame of whose underwear commercial she seems to have committed to memory, is laugh-out-loud funny. Another plotline has the cons replacing one of the guard’s steroid supplements with estrogen; the guard ends up as a weepy, emotional wreck, responding to teammates’ criticism, “Why are you yelling at me? All I did was care.”
The worst part of the film is the way it tries to work as a vehicle for ESPN sportscasters such as Dan Patrick and Chris Berman. Patrick is harmless enough in his early skit as a cop. But Berman, who does the play-by-play for the big game, being broadcast on ESPN2 to capitalize on the fame of Crewe, is insufferable. Whereas in the first film, the commentator played it straight and let the game have its own effect on the audience, here Berman constantly has to tell the audience what they ought to be thinking and feeling. By the time he drops his now dated, “rumblin’, bumblin’, stumblin’” line, he has become an irritating distraction.
That’s too bad because the sheer brutality of the physical competition is one of the great draws in both versions of the film. Who can forget the scene from the first film, delivered by the Lurch-like convict, who, after leveling a particularly nasty prison guard, proclaims gleefully, “I think I broke his f***ing neck”?
Given the dominant mood of levity, more prominent here than in the first, the single scene of serious violence, with deadly consequences, seems even more out of place in the remake than in the original. It now strikes me as incongruous even in the original but seems patently absurd here.
So, if you’re not offended by prison humor, don’t think of the original as a sacred document, and enjoy slapstick athletic violence, you’re likely to find this remake quite entertaining, a welcome entry from SNL alums Rock and Sandler.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.