When I watched Flight of the Phoenix, I noted that I own four Robert Aldrich films, the first two I’ve watched being Flight of the Phoenix itself and The Dirty Dozen. Both of them were quite long (around two and a half hours) yet filled out their time fully somehow in spite of the fact that both times on first impression I didn’t think a movie about a gang of misfit criminal soldiers and an airplane crash should last that long as movies.
I saw the running time for The Longest Yard at two hours and thought that was insane knowing the rough plot of the movie as I did. Yet again, though, Aldrich surprised me. I’ve come to find the reason I enjoy his films starting to gel. It’s related to what often appeals to me about films from the 70s–they bear a filmstock of very obvious quality, especially in the first half of the decade. You can spot them a mile away–this one, Dirty Harry, M*A*S*H, so on and so forth. 70s fashion bleeds from every scene, and it melds into this very separated film stock–each coloured element in a frame seems distinct from the other parts, almost rudimentary in its colouration, lacking the richness and detail of my favourite decade’s film (the 80s, if this is my first review for you), but this gives them a sort of rougher, more gritty feel to these films, like they are rough and uncontrolled, despite the control Aldrich clearly has over events. It feels like punches aren’t pulled and things are very matter-of-fact, probably because this is the decade where things were really pulling out of fully-scripted, commonly stage-adapted screenplays (to my knowledge, a strong influence from films like Easy Rider at the end of the decade prior, though I won’t profess exacting knowledge of how those things fit together). This isn’t a wild movie, it doesn’t feel unscripted or unprofessional, but it maintains that kind of atmosphere despite this.
While it’s commonly considered a comedy, and certainly has funny bits (alas, drawing a smile at most from me primarily, but that’s hardly atypical) it also has some pretty dark moments, some pretty decent drama and certainly some tension. I can’t profess to know much about the remake (which followed the remake of Flight of the Phoenix by a year, no less) but it looks like they went more for a straight, slick comedy, with a trailer giving away tons of gags and so on, and everything feeling very carefully rehearsed, edited, directed, framed and played. It ruins the sponatneous feel so necessary to good humour–or good drama in many cases–which is the feeling that a 70s film manages to maintain even in the hands of a director who knows what he’s doing like Aldrich. I think it’s a strange move from Burt Reynolds as abusive, drunken, careless Paul Crewe to Adam Sandler. Reynolds is a more appropriate fit for this kind of character; while both do comedy, it seems that Sandler is more appropriate for moves into straight-ahead drama, rather than action-drama (see, of course, Deliverance for what I mean about the contrasting Burt). He plays the character with wonderful charm and charisma, without at all selling his nastiness short. The first scene with his girlfriend (admittedly NOT a woman we feel much sympathy for as a human being, considering her attitude, though it’s not used at all to JUSTIFY, or really even explain, his abuse) is not pleasant, though there’s a strange dark humour to it all the same.
I think by the same token, albeit almost reversed, short of major script changes, Chris Rock is a strange choice to replace James Hampton as Caretaker. Here Caretaker is a loveable, slightly round conman in the prison, the one who can “get whatever you need,” and who doesn’t do much, if anything, mean to anyone. Chris Rock is a little on the sarcastic side for that kind of character I think. He can certainly be sympathetic, but I see Caretaker as a sort of teddy bear of a character. Which is relevant, I suppose, to another issue. The ’74 original is open about racial division in jails, both apparently institutional and seemingly voluntary. I can’t profess to jail experience myself, but almost everything seems to protray this as a fact of the way prisons seem to work out and it seems like that is, if you’ll pardon the prhase, whitewashed in the remake.
But, I digress.
Normally, I guess, this review should have something about sports movies and how they’re always great and uplifting, or how they suck because they’re all the same or whatever. I sort of experienced the latter for a while, managing to ruin the ending of every sports movie ever with one simple concept (don’t read this if you want to maintain a feeling of suspense with sports movies): Either the team wins and it’s an uplifting joy, or they lose and we learn a lesson of some kind–or it’s a downbeat dramatic ending. But, at the same time, once you realize there are only so many paths to take, you can stop worrying about which path or what path at all. It doesn’t matter, to me, which ending we end up with. If I’m interested in the film itself, sure, I want to know what happens, but neither will surprise me anymore, I’ve seen enough. There can be a surprise if there ISN’T a “last final greatest game ever,” but even that has been done a few odd times.
The entertainment comes from everything else, from the characters and from the plotting. This is a fun one with loads of character actor faces behind Burt Reynolds’ star power. John Steadman is Pops, the elderly inmate who made the mistake of socking the warden before he was warden, so he’s no longer getting out anytime soon–who I know as the nervous, wound-up shopkeeper from the beginning of Wes Craven’s 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes (…so, let me see how many films I can bring up that were remade in the past decade…). I know Michael Conrad, who plays Crewe’s fellow ex-player Nate Scarboro, from his continuing role on the early cop drama Hill Street Blues as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus. I know Ed Lauter (who plays the cruel Captain Knauer) from somewhere, possibly just his turns guesting on shows I’ve seen entire runs of like Homicide: Life on the Street, The X-Files and Millennium, but I thought from at least a film or two.
Anyway, the football is well shot and engaging in its style and carried off in that same seemingly anarchic but clearly controlled spirit as the rest of the film, an approach that seemingly died in that decade. As such, recent sports movies tend away from interest to me, but one never knows–I’m intrigued, actually, by the presence of people like Nick Turturro, Bill Fichtner, David Patrick Kelly and James Cromwell in the remake, but I’m still wary of the slick new approach to film-making when applied to a rough-and-tumble film like this one.