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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

THE LONGEST YARD -- Movie Review by Porfle

(This review originally appeared online at in 2007. Warning: may contain spoilers.)

I just fished a copy of THE LONGEST YARD (1974) out of the budget bin at Wal-Mart. Sometimes you actually do find buried treasure in those big piles of dreck. This time I was able to get one of the greatest sports movies ever made (some call it the best football movie of all time) for five-and-a-half bucks.

Thanks to the release of the Adam Sandler remake, which I haven't seen yet (so far, so good), we have the original now in a special "Lockdown Edition" complete with two featurettes and a commentary track featuring Burt Reynolds and producer Albert S. Ruddy (THE GODFATHER). The commentary is relaxed, enjoyable, and informative, and slows down only when the two participants get caught watching the movie and forget they're supposed to be talking about it.

Burt stars as Paul Crewe, a disgraced former NFL quarterback who has a nasty breakup with his sugar mama (Anitra Ford) and, after leading the cops on a high-speed chase in her stolen car and then resisting arrest, ends up in a Florida prison in the middle of a swamp.

The stiff-arsed Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert) turns out to be a football fanatic who has arranged to have Crewe sent to his prison to help shape up his semi-pro team that is composed of the prison's guards, in exchange for an easy sentence. But this makes the captain of the team and head guard Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter) jealous, and he warns Crewe to refuse the warden's offer or suffer heapin' helpings of physical abuse. Crewe turns the warden down, and gets beaten up anyway.

After some horrific experiences on swamp detail and a stretch in the "hot box", Crewe gives in to the warden's request. But Hazen has a new plan in mind--Crewe will get together a team comprised of prisoners which will play a "tune-up" game against the guards. This easy victory will bolster the guards' confidence and make them more ready to take on the task of winning the championship of their division.

Crewe initially sees no chance of making a dent against the guards' team with the ragtag group of misfits at his disposal, but as the guards continue to heap abuse and indignity on the prisoners at every turn, he eventually begins to entertain the notion of actually beating and humiliating them and the warden in front of a crowd of spectators. All he has to do is overcome the prisoners' intial dislike for him, and entice the more hesitant ones with the promise of being able to get physical with the guards.

Burt Reynolds in his prime was a really good actor who could be suitably intense while often allowing a dry, self-mocking sense of humor to to permeate his demeanor. Much of the script, written by Tracy Keenan Wynn from a story by Ruddy, was intended to be straight drama until Reynolds and his castmates started playing around with their characters and making things more interesting and fun. But the humor never detracts from the seriousness of the situations, and the result is a story that can be enjoyed on both levels at the same time.

Crewe's best pal and manager of the prisoners' team, The Mean Machine, is the resident scrounger, Caretaker (James Hampton), who can get anything for anybody in the joint, including getting them laid. Hampton is one of the finest character actors in the business--his most recent high-profile role was as Dr. Jerry Woolridge in SLING BLADE--and deserves a lot more recognition than he's gotten over the years. Trouble is, as opposed to guys like Marlon Brando or Sean Penn who make great acting seem like a hernia-inducing ordeal, Hampton makes it look easy. Which is why he's so good.

The rest of the cast is pretty awesome as well. Eddie Albert was utterly convincing whether playing a sleazy suit-and-tie sadist like Warden Hazen or the lovable Oliver Wendell Douglas of "Green Acres." Ed Lauter as Captain Knauer is another fine character actor whose consistently good performances add to whatever he appears in. "Dick" Kiel, yet to make a big splash as "Jaws" in the James Bond series, is funny as one of the prisoners. Other fine supporting players include Charles Tyner, Sonny Shroyer ("Enos" of TV's "Dukes of Hazzard"), Harry Caesar, Michael Conrad ("Hill Street Blues"), Mike Henry, and an incredibly bee-hived Bernadette Peters ("You ever find any spiders in there?" Crewe asks her) as the warden's sex-starved secretary.

Several former pro football players such as Ernie Wheelwright and Ray Nitschke are on hand as well for added authenticity. This really pays off during the big game, which takes up almost 45 minutes of screen time. The plays are real--director Robert Aldrich (THE DIRTY DOZEN, FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX) simply filmed these guys playing grungy, hard-ass football and picked the footage that fit the script. No namby-pamby pretend tackling or "acting" here. One of the joys of THE LONGEST YARD for the sports fan is that, for the most part, this is real football played by real football players. The staged stuff which occurs here and there only adds to the excitement and hilarity of the situations, especially when Crewe comes up with a way of eliminating the scariest member of the competition, Bodanski (both onscreen and off--Ray Nitschke wasn't screwing around) with a forward pass to the groin, not once but twice. Various clotheslines ("I think I broke his f***ing neck!" Kiel's character rejoices), pile-ups, sucker punches, and other highly-unsportsmanlike activity also add to the fun.

The suspense is heightened when Warden Hazen, aghast at the sight of his guards losing to the convicts, makes Crewe a halftime offer he can't refuse--throw the game, or do hard time in prison for roughly twenty extra years. Crewe, always the type to look out for number one, must decide whether to give in or sacrifice himself for the sake of his teammates, whom he has given the chance to earn some dignity and self-respect for a change. And head guard Knauer, after seeing the warden for the slimeball that he is and gaining a grudging respect for Crewe, will soon be forced to make a decision of his own, which may include blowing Crewe's brains out.

If you love good movies, football, Burt Reynolds, big ugly sweaty guys rolling around in the mud, or all of the above, then THE LONGEST YARD is a film that should definitely be on your must-see list. Like I said, I haven't seen the Adam Sandler remake so I don't know how they compare, but I'm willing to bet that one of them will be remembered as one of the greatest football films ever made when the other is little more than a dim memory. I'll let you decide which is which.

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