The Longest Yard - Lockdown Edition Review

There are three basic types of sports movies. The first is the one about the losers who beat the odds and become winners - Rocky, Hoosiers, Major League. The second is the one about how sport is becoming so insanely brutal that people are coming to watch the violence rather than the game - Rollerball, Death Race 2000. Finally, there is a hybrid of the two – losers become winners through the use of brute force – which resulted in two of the most entertaining movies of the 1970s; Slap Shot, featuring one of Paul Newman’s best performances; and The Longest Yard, originally released in Britain as The Mean Machine. A tough, sometimes crude but often remarkably witty film, The Longest Yard is thoroughly satisfying on a number of levels and it’s one of the few films to make good use of Burt Reynolds, an actor who, during the days of his mega-stardom, was usually several times better than his material deserved.

Reynolds, for the most part sans moustache, plays Paul Crewe – aka ‘Wrecking Crewe’ – a has-been football star who hasn’t been near the game in seven years. Taunted by one of his rich female keepers, he steals her Masarati and, after a police chase, dumps it into a river. Compounding this offence with drunken driving and resisting arrest, Crew finds himself in prison for a two to five year stretch, at the mercy of Warden Hazen (Albert) and Captain Knauer (Lauter). The Warden attempts to goad him into coaching the guards’ football team but Crewe, warned against such a move by Knauer, refuses. After a stint doing swamp detail however, Crewe agrees to another scheme – a guards versus convicts game with himself as star quarterback willing to lead his team to honourable failure. What the warden doesn’t count on is Crewe’s increasing sense of loyalty to his fellow inmates and an innate determination never to give in to the system.

On the surface, The Longest Yard is simply a vehicle for Burt Reynolds and, as such, it is a triumph. Reynolds was one of the first actors to enjoy being a celebrity to such a degree that his public persona gradually became tangled up with his characters. Though always capable, when the spirit moved him, of genuinely interesting performances - Deliverance, Hustle, Starting Over, Boogie Nights - Reynolds has always seemed most at home when playing something not too far from himself. Indeed, Paul Crewe could be Reynolds’ own comment on his fame as half-beefcake, half-clown. Reynolds sends himself up so constantly that self-parody becomes a style of performance and although this began to grate after films like Hooper (Brian Keith and Robert Klein aside), Cannonball Run 2 and the mind-bogglingly dreadful Stroker Ace, it’s genuinely likeable here. Reynolds is funny simply by being in the film so when he gets a good line – “Oh look, a miniature cop!” – the effect is delightfully comic. This is ideal for The Longest Yard because it renders the ‘losers become winners’ plotline all the more satisfying as this self-mocking jester becomes a hero seeking redemption through a seemingly hopeless football game.

But this is so much more than simply a Reynolds-fest in the manner of Smokey and the Bandit. For one thing, it’s got a cracking good script by Tracy Keenan Wynn which keeps the story rattling along while never neglecting to add plenty of colour in the characterisation. A good cast helps with this of course. There’s an authenticity to the faces here and that’s not only because real cons were used as extras. Actors like Michael Conrad – later famous for “Hill Street Blues” – and Jim Hampton were given their first big break here and they have an unfamiliar freshness and vitality which adds a lot to the energy of the film. The archetypal tough-guy Robert Tessier is present too – looking terrifying – and there are lovely moments from actors like Harry Caesar and John Steadman; men who usually turned up for a scene and then vanished but get the chance here to create memorable characters. Aldrich used some well-known football players to enhance the realism of the final game – most of them are unfamiliar names to me but they include Sonny Sixkiller, Ray Nitschke and Mike Henry. There’s also crack editing from Michael Luciano, who also worked on Aldrich’s biggest hit, The Dirty Dozen.

As well as being a classic sports movie, The Longest Yard is one of the iconic prison films and, like all the best of the genre, it has great villains. You can keep Bob Gunton and Clancy Brown in Shawshank, Patrick McGoohan in Escape From Alcatraz or even Hume Cronyn in Brute Force. For my money, Eddie Albert and Ed Lauter are the definitive prison movie bad guys. Ed Lauter is quite terrifying in the ultimate of his roles as a heavy and he looks quite at home in both uniforms. Eddie Albert, who died in May, is a joy as Warden Hazen, a man so hypocritical that his teeth must have trouble acting in synch with his jaw. There are some deliberate political asides here, incidentally. Robert Aldrich was a dedicated liberal and a fierce hater of Nixon and he encouraged Eddie Albert to add little Nixonian touches – the flag on the jacket, the circumlocutory style of speech, the insincere, sweaty smile. Albert combines this with a fine parody of Lyndon Johnson’s public persona – a strange mixture of Southern hospitality and backwoods terror. Aldrich also delighted in putting the phrase “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” over Knauer’s desk – the saying was a favourite of John Mitchell, Nixon’s discredited Attorney General.

It would be unjust, however, not to give the largest share of credit to Robert Aldrich. A visionary and vastly underrated director, Aldrich had to fight to make virtually every film he ever completed and had dreams of a hundred more he was unable to finance. He brings to The Longest Yard his trademark style of surface simplicity masking careful planning of shots and an ability to keep a film dynamic even in its expository moments. He doesn’t over-direct in the modern style. He’s confident enough to hold a shot for just long enough before cutting to something else and this pays enormous dividends in the brilliantly choreographed football game which makes up the final third of the film. When he uses conscious stylisation – as in the split-screen and slow-motion parts of this climax – it’s done with breathtaking precision. Although hindsight lets us see that this is an obviously commercial film, at the time it didn’t seem so. Aldrich had suffered a string of flops since The Killing of Sister George in 1968 and he was forced to sell his own production company. Extraordinary films like Emperor Of The North and Ulzana’s Raid were either ignored or patronised by critics who were all too eager to explore the work of the ‘Movie Brats’ and ignore the equally interesting things being achieved by older directors. The Longest Yard, Aldrich’s last major hit, is often rowdy and obvious but it’s also typically insightful in its view of the way men behave together and it contains little refinements of physical and character comedy that repay multiple viewings. It also, incidentally, relishes the chance to turn Eddie Albert into a pastiche of a disgraced president. As Anne Billson once wrote, Aldrich may occasionally lack subtlety and refinement but he was incapable of making a boring film. The Longest Yard is not quite in the same league as the director’s greatest work but it’s a damned entertaining movie and I very much doubt that the current remake will be able to hold even the tiniest candle to it.

The Disc

Paramount have released The Longest Yard before on a disc which offered reasonably good picture quality but not much else. This new disc is a ‘Lockdown Edition’, meaning that we get some extra features this time.

The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Robert Aldrich shot it in fullscreen and it was matted for theatrical release so the film you see here is how it was seen in cinemas. It looks fine at this ratio and the transfer is generally impressive. Colours are particular striking and there’s plenty of detail. The main drawback is some pretty obvious print damage and a little fading here and there – the swamp scenes are particularly afflicted by this for some reason. Having said this, the slightly muddy photography of these scenes doesn’t help and, overall, you’re unlikely to ever see this film looking any better than it does here.

The soundtrack, saints be praised, is the original mono. No moronic sound engineer has been let loose on the sound mixing and the result is very satisfying. You’ll register every single crunch of every single bone during the gruelling climax.

The highlight of a small selection of extras is a commentary track from Burt Reynolds and producer Albert S. Ruddy. The two men are old friends and they demonstrate loads of chemistry as they chat about their memories of the film and, particularly, their shared affection for American Football. Admittedly, Reynolds tends to wander and sometimes fails to finish interesting anecdotes – including one about his next film with Aldrich, the magnificent Hustle - but it’s all so good-natured that you just have to surrender to its charm.

The three featurettes are less interesting. Two of them concern the making of the film and might as well have been stuck together. Some interesting comments from cast and crew are included but a good deal of footage from the film is also stuck in to pad out the running time. The third is a preview of the 2005 remake of the film, starring Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds (in the Michael Conrad role), which looks pretty awful to me, but maybe I’m just getting old. We also get a lengthy theatrical trailer for the original film and some very irksome forced previews when the disc is played.

The film is fully subtitled in English and French but the extra features are not.

The Longest Yard is a joy to watch, a prison/sports movie with plenty of character. The football game which climaxes the film is irresistible stuff, even if (as several critics have pointed out) you don’t have a clue about American Football. Greater authorities than me have labelled it the best Football game in American screen history so who am I to argue. This DVD presents it quite well and the commentary is great fun to listen to. Recommended.

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