After a series of interchangeable slacker movies with scripts that felt like two lines scribbled on a pizza box cover and a couple of sensitive performances in movies by A-list directors, Adam Sandler seems to be growing up at last. Instead of the boy-man with the strangled voice, he’s allowing himself to play a competent, if flawed character. And instead of winking at the camera, he’s allowing himself to play a character who confronts some significant choices in a meaningful way.
He’s got the help of a rock-solid script by Tracy Keenan Wynn, filmed once before in 1974, directed so you feel the punches by the cheerfully testosteronic Robert Aldrich, whose own The Dirty Dozen provided the template, a sort of a Dirty Dozen football team. The premise is simple: a bunch of bad and crazy guys who don’t work well with others take on a task no one else could or would. This version is slightly sweetened (from an R to a PG-13) and updated (O.J. Simpson joke, cross-dressing cheerleaders) but it’s still rough, and pleasurably so. It avoids the walrus-barf humor of Sandler’s previous scripts (though not the middle-school level sex jokes about fear of women and homosexuals). Sandler football movies have come a long way since Waterboy.
Paul “Wrecking” Crewe (Sandler) is a onetime star quarterback on probation after having been indicted — but not convicted -for shaving points in a game. When a drunken driving spree in his girlfriend’s Bentley ends in a pile-up, he is sent to prison for violating his parole. And this prison is not one of those country clubs with the Wall Street guys and Martha Stewart. He’s set for three years of hard time in Texas, where they “take two things very seriously — prisons and football.”
It turns out the football-loving warden (James Cromwell), who hopes to run for governor, has pulled some strings to get Paul sent to his prison. He wants Paul to help coach the prison guards’ football team. When Paul suggests the guards find a weak team to play as a warm-up before their first big game, the warden tells him to create a team from the inmates.
With the help of Caretaker (Chris Rock), the prison’s top scavenger and fixer, Paul puts a team together — they may not exactly be team players, but it turns out that telling them they get to tackle the guards is highly motivational. The men don’t know much about playing football, but some are big, some are mean, some are reckless, and some are fast. And they really want to hurt those guards.
The movie is about two things: Paul’s journey to find some kind of honor and seeing big men slam the heck out of each other many, many times. It wisely devotes most of its time and attention on the latter, with just enough narrative and character to make some of the slamming and crunching and crunching a bit more distinctive or to help it move the plot forward along with the football.
Sandler is better at acting like he doesn’t care than acting like he does. He doesn’t “act” so much as let himself be comfortable onscreen, which most of the time suits the character well. Rock seems to pick up on that vibe, and is relaxed and sweeter than he has been in other films. Rap star Nelly makes a fine impression, especially in a scene where he has to keep his temper while being taunted by the guards. Former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin and an assortment of other very, very large former football players and wrestlers enjoy themselves on screen and we enjoy watching them. And it’s nice to see the star of the original film, Burt Reynolds, as a former Heisman Trophy winner who coaches the prisoners and helps this film cross the goal line. Cromwell is not a match for the original film’s flinty performance by Eddie Albert, and Cloris Leachman is sadly wasted in an embarrassing role as the warden’s secretary who has especially warm memories of Paul’s underwear ads (a brief glimpse of the obviously computer-generated ad is more preposterous than funny). The original film still beats this one when it comes to touchdowns, but the remake will do as above average silly summer fare.
Parents should know that the movie has rough material for a PG-13, with very strong language (including the n-word, used both with and without intended offense), sexual references and situations, brief non-sexual nudity, humor about genital size and arousal, and references to straight and gay sex. There is some locker-room humor including brief silly slightly homophobic insults. Characters cross-dress and move suggestively. Some drink (including drunk driving), smoke, and take steroids and there are references to illegal street drugs as well. Many of the central characters are doing hard time for various criminal acts and other characters behave abusively or unfairly. The movie includes brutal beatings and more-than-full contact sports violence.
Families who see this movie should talk about whether it has a “happy” ending in traditional terms. What made Paul change his mind? What did he decide was most important to him, and why?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy seeing the original The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds as Crewe and some other movies with football themes, including The Replacements and M*A*S*H. They may also enjoy the classic prison drama Cool Hand Luke.