Adam Sandler doesn’t look like a guy who could shave points off a football game, at least not without bursting into tears of remorse and apologizing in a high-pitched burble. Burt Reynolds does — and did with even more anarchic macho swagger some 30 years ago when he originated the role of disgraced former NFL quarterback Paul ”Wrecking” Crewe currently reprised by Sandler in The Longest Yard. And therein lies a cultural shift that culminates in the reasonably diverting but curiously defanged remake of the jailhouse-gridiron underdog saga we have now before us: In studio comedies and urban entertainments — even those that claim to rebel against the system, stick it to the power, and detonate the bombs of racial bigotry — we are living in the age of the PG-13 Sandler Man, intrinsically nice team player, rather than the R-rated Reynolds Man, potentially dangerous lone fox. And in such a setting of boys-at-play, it’s harder to tell the subversive from the product-placement deal.
Not that this remake, directed by simpatico Team Sandler member Peter Segal (Anger Management), doesn’t generously follow the playbook of the original, either in story, dialogue, or, in many places, shot selection. (One difference: Tracy Keenan Wynn’s original script made no disposable references, as Sheldon Turner’s does, to Beyoncé, Star Jones, Michael Jackson, Forrest Gump, or Shrek.) Now as then, Crewe starts off as a drink-sloshed has-been, a washed-up former Sports Somebody who, when we first meet him, dumps his rich-bitch girlfriend, steals her fancy car, and leads cops on a wild high-speed chase. (In this case the bitch in the boob-spilling frock is played by an uncredited Courteney Cox Arquette, and Sandler looks as whipped by this scary specimen of the female sex as he did by Téa Leoni in Spanglish.)
Once captured, roughed up, and sent off to a prison far from home, Crewe first endures the taunting hatred of his fellow cons, ready to forgive rape, murder, and thievery, but not something as ”un-American” as throwing a game. Then he endures the bullying of the prison’s warden (James Cromwell), a rotten, football-obsessed politician eager to make use of his new star inmate as a coach, on the convict side, in a rigged football match between the guards and the cons.
As it was in Robert Aldrich’s original, the heart of The Longest Yard is the building of the team that calls itself the Mean Machine — a band of multihued brothers bound by shared status as incarcerated scum — and the playing of the cataclysmic game itself, in what sometimes feels like actual time. (The fundamental things applied too in the bone-cruncher 2002 British remake, Mean Machine, starring anvil-headed soccer star Vinnie Jones.) But then, even as the sports choreography intensifies and Segal cuts from crowd reactions to scoreboard close-ups to shots of the tranny-convict cheerleaders in full Rockette formation, this new, MTV-generation version downshifts into a different, broader, gentler, less politically subversive comedy than Aldrich’s bleaker end run around Watergate-era authority. The real tyranny of the jailer over the jailed alluded to in 1974 — certainly a topic of wincing interest in a modern era of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib — is laughed off in favor of a few race jokes.
And oddly, the new version skews neutral despite the featured participation of the always usefully mouthy Chris Rock as the wily prison fixer known only as Caretaker (a role originated by Jim Hampton). Flitting around Texas’ fictional Allenville Penitentiary with a cigarette tucked behind his ear and a finger in every inside deal, observing his too-soft-for-Oz fellows (including rap star Nelly and SNL’s Tracy Morgan among the prisoners, and ex-jocks Brian Bosworth and Bill Romanowski among the guards), Rock’s Caretaker becomes a one-man chorus of easy barbs. Each joke and one-liner is a made-for-HBO zinger, each scene with Sandler a reaffirmation of the old friendship between the two successful SNL alums, now celebrating their success with a big-ticket comedy in which getting smashed in the crotch is as good as a handshake.
It’s a safe bet that the prime audience for the movie won’t have seen the original, won’t be able to recall Reynolds in his 1970s prime, and won’t, indeed, care whether the yard is long, short, or covered in crabgrass, so long as it sprouts eye-catching celebrities like Sandler, Rock, and Nelly. Yet I can’t help thinking that in this game of remake, points have been shaved.