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Longest Yard, The

Longest Yard, The(1974)

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Burt Reynolds became cool again about a decade ago. For me, the reminder of how much fun the 1970s box-office kingpin could be was when MTV's The State did a hilarious, beat-for-beat recreation of the bloopers at the end of Cannonball Run. A role in Alexander Payne's shrewd satire Citizen Ruth and Reynolds's more recent, colorful appearances on Jon Favreau's cable series Dinner for Five have since enhanced that initial reminder. So has the enduring legacy of Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard, one of Reynolds's best and most popular movies.

As we prepare for the second remake of the movie in five years - the 2001 English soccer movie Mean Machine preceding the recently released Adam Sandler version - the original The Longest Yard is back in a special Lockdown Edition DVD that adds an audio commentary by Reynolds and producer Albert Ruddy, as well as two featurettes, to the movie's previous disc. None of the additions is necessarily reason for anyone with the no-frills version to upgrade, but it certainly sweetens the pot for those who passed the first time around.

The main draw is still the movie itself. Imagine a cross between Cool Hand Luke and the football game in M*A*S*H, made at a time when the Watergate scandal stripped popular respect for authority and when the three-peating Oakland A's brought a new brand of iconoclasm to sports, and you've got an idea of the rebellious mood behind the story of a disgraced ex-footballer who leads a team of convicts against a team of guards in a gridiron showdown at a Florida prison. Reynolds is that ex-footballer, Paul Crewe, who may not carry the wounded soulfulness of a Paul Newman character, but who is a Grade A heel when the movie begins. That's when he slaps around the rich beauty (Anitra Ford of Invasion of the Bee Girls) who keeps him in new clothes, steals one of her sports cars, gets in a chase with police and resists arrest. Later, we learn he was a former MVP kicked out of pro football for shaving points in a game. Pressed to field a team of cons by the football-obsessed warden (Eddie Albert) of the prison where he's sent, Crewe is put in the no-win situation of getting trampled by the guards, including characters played by such real NFLers as Joe Kapp and the inimitable Ray Nitschke (who also graced The Monkees's Head), or defying the warden and showing up the guards┬┐s team. In need of the integrity that can provide redemption, Crewe picks the latter, of course, during the climactic game.

This was, as far as I know, director Aldrich's first comedy, although he would subsequently make others before his 1983 death. One of the more interesting things gleaned from the new commentary track is that The Longest Yard was not conceived of as a comedy. That's why Aldrich was hired to film Tracey Keenan Wynn's script (based on a story by Ruddy, who also produced The Godfather). It was Reynolds's natural flair for comedy that caused the director and star to nudge the story towards comedy. The very funny scene in which Crewe belittles the cops trying to arrest him was improvised, we learn in the commentary, while the tit-for-tat mud fight between Crewe and another con was also off the cuff and inspired by Laurel and Hardy. But don't think The Longest Yard feels like an anomaly in Aldrich's career (He also directed Kiss Me Deadly and The Dirty Dozen). Although Ruddy told Aldrich they couldn't afford to use Aldrich regulars like Ernest Borgnine for it, The Longest Yard still has Aldrich's usual grit. In fact, in revisiting it now, I was surprised how extreme the movie was by 1974 standards. My gut reaction is that no hit comedy before The Longest Yard was as raw in language and violence as it is. Phil Karlson's brutal drama Walking Tall had been a surprise hit a year before, so perhaps The Longest Yard is one of Hollywood's first reflections of that indie release's success. While the football scenes, however realistic, have a freewheeling comic style, it's the early, audience-challenging scene where Crewe manhandles the woman that sticks out. I doubt any comedy today would risk such a moment though, as Ruddy comments, everyone was banking on Reynolds' charisma to still make Crewe likable, which it did. (Of course, it will be interesting to see if the Sandler remake, in which Reynolds plays the older ex-pro who coaches the convicts's team, rounds off the rough edges of the original.)

Even without Borgnine and his other stock players, Aldrich still flexes plenty of masculine muscle in The Longest Yard, and the camaraderie among cast members like Reynolds, James Hampton (Dobbs on F Troop!) and Michael Conrad is one of the movie's great strengths. Aldrich was able to use old friend Albert, of course, and the actor may as well be playing an older version of the cowardly Army captain he played in Aldrich's bold World War II drama Attack!. But The Longest Yard is really Reynolds's moment in the sun. During the mid-1970s, Reynolds was ably balancing the good ol' boy side of his career (White Lightning, , etc.) and the more actorly side of his career (Deliverance, At Long Last Love, etc.). You might say, like Deliverance, The Longest Yard tapped both sides. By the early 1980s, the good ol' boys movies were creaky sequels and Reynolds's other movies lacked the spark of his earlier work, and his star diminished.

Despite being recorded 31 years after the fact, the audio commentary featuring Ruddy and Reynolds keeps focused squarely on The Longest Yard, for better or worse. I was hoping for more of a Reynolds cacklefest, a la his Tonight Show appearances from the 1970s, but the producer and star do offer insight into one of each's favorite projects (though Reynolds somehow cites both Bobby Layne and Doug Flutie as inspiration for Crewe being a quarterback who wears #22, although Flutie didn't make a name for himself until a decade after The Longest Yard). The 10-minute featurettes are marginally interesting, though they almost treat the "old" The Longest Yard as a mere excuse to mention the new one.

For more information about The Longest Yard: Lockdown Edition, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order The Longest Yard, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman