“The Longest Yard” is the story of a guards vs. convicts prison football game about which one inmate comments that “the blood of the guards will flow like the rivers of ancient Babylon”. I don’t wanna sound like I’m a proponent of violence, but who wouldn’t want to watch a game foreseen in such outrageous terms?
In the film’s opening scene (radically different from the 1974 original movie, which is a good thing in that the treatment of a woman is sort of clever instead of appalling), we are introduced to former NFL star quarterback Paul Crewe (Adam Sandler), who was banned from the game six years before for rigging the score for bettors. He’s down on his luck at a party, watching footage of his old glory by himself in a room when he’s told to go mingle with the crowd by his sexy but obnoxious girlfriend (Courteney Cox). He responds by tricking her into looking for a gift in a closet, locks her there then decides to “borrow” her Bentley. A wild police chase follows, leading to a massive pile-up, and Crewe is sent deep into the heart of Texas to Allenville State Penitentiary.
There, Warden Hazen (well played by James Cromwell) oversees a semi-pro football team made up of guards. The team’s performance has been lacking for a few years, so Hazen figures a former star like Crewe can give his squad a few pointers as a consultant. When Crewe suggests they should have a tune-up game before the upcoming season, Hazen leaves Crewe little choice but to assemble a team of convicts and act as their quarterback. With help from Caretaker, the inmate who can get you stuff (Chris Rock), and from a coach who shows up like a gunslinger in a troubled Wild West outpost (Burt Reynolds, who played Crewe in ’74), Crewe starts recruiting and preparing the troops for the big game. But as the big matchup unfolds and Hazen realizes the cons offer much tougher resistance than he wanted, he throws a wrench in Crewe’s Mean Machine at halftime: the quarterback is to let the guards run away with victory, or Hazen will hold him as an accomplice to the murder of a key character. The emotional focus then becomes whether personal pride and team spirit will triumph over control and blackmail.
There’s something about Sandler as a star quarterback that’s a little unconvincing, but as a guy who faces The System and eventually wins over his teammates, he does a fairly good job. The use of split screens during the football action, which was rather excessive and disorderly in the original, is done more sparingly, and as such more efficiently, in the new film. Director Peter Segal, who directed Sandler twice before (in “Anger Management” and “50 First Dates”) succeeds at building a sense of team unity and purpose, with good contributions by Sandler and former Dallas Cowboys star wideout Michael Irvin. And if you enjoy football, the game itself is shown with bone-crunching energy.
But the screenplay from Sheldon Turner, while in many instances respectful of the 1974 film, involves too many odd or overly quirky characters. There’s the warden’s assistant who could be a closeted uncle of Tom Hanks’ character in “The Ladykillers”, a nutcase who blames his poor ball control on eating popcorn, a ping-pong loving giant who mumbles his few words, a guard who goes all sensitive after the cons change his steroids for estrogen, the prison cross-dressers who double as cheerleaders led by Tracy Morgan, and I’m leaving out a few more. Yet even with these dubious audibles from the 1974 playbook, “The Longest Yard” remains a decently enjoyable production, especially if you like movies featuring team sports.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay