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The Longest Yard

Director: Peter Segal
Cast: Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Burt Reynolds, Nelly, James Cromwell

(Paramount; US theatrical: 27 May 2005; 2005)

Doing Time

The Adam Sandler Character is well known: a mix of sardonic and affable, goofy and charming, he’s got a little bit of a violent streak that emerges occasionally, born of frustrations that mostly remain unspoken. Whether he’s paired with Jack Nicholson, Drew Barrymore, Patricia Arquette, or even, in the special case of Punch-Drunk Love, Luis Guzmán, the Adam Sandler Character remains loyal to Rob Schneider and winds up in a still moral center, even if it takes him some time to recognize it.


While earlier versions of this formula have ranged from antic to tedious, almost all versions are beloved by fans (Little Nicky being a notable exception). Still, you might sympathize with the actor Adam Sandler (different from the Adam Sandler Character), who might want to play another sort of himself. The Paul Thomas Anderson movie was one instance of something else, Spanglish another, where the actor attempted to apply the basics of the character—the puppy dog affect, the roiling anger inside, the desire to be loved—to another context. And yet repeatedly, the profits to be gained from a straight-up Adam Sandler Character vehicle must also be hard to resist.


All this by way of introducing a movie that’s part standard ASC vehicle and part something else, in that it grafts the ASC onto another one, once well known and now largely forgotten, namely, the old Burt Reynolds Character (the one with some integrity and admirable snark). You might make the argument that the ASC is in fact this year’s BRC, meaning, the edge is less menacing, the charm less obviously sexualized, and the disruption he brings—and he does bring it—is more antic.


In this year’s The Longest Yard, Sandler plays former MVP quarterback Paul Crewe, who lands himself in a Texas prison (read: dusty, primitive, accompanied by twangy guitar) following a mishap with his big-breasted, harpy girlfriend Lena’s (Courtney Cox) Bentley. Already on probation—he was drummed out of the NFL for shaving points—he’s apparently tired of playing boy toy, and so, when Lena demands he join her for a party in progress, he locks her in a closet and steals her car, soliciting a police chase and a multi-car crash.


A long hot bus ride to Nowheresville sets up Paul’s new status as the target for gnarly security guards/NFL fans who hate him for cheating. Turns out the political-career-minded warden (James Cromwell) sees his crime in another light, namely, that he’s the perfect man to get his steroid-enhanced guards’ interprison league team prepped to take the title. Paul resists (“I just wanna do my time,” he says, like they all say), then relinquishes when threatened with hard and more time. The plan—set up a prisoners’ team who will lose mightily to the guards, thereby securing the latter’s confidence—immediately become untenable, when Paul identifies with the inmates against the guards who include former NFL player Brian Bosworth, wrestler Steve Austin, and a QB played the always excellent William Fichtner). He’s inspired to this in part by the guards’ harassment of him, and manages it by slamming one of these guards with a cafeteria tray and does a week in the “hot box,” winning some cons’ admiration.


These admirers include vintage coach Nate (Reynolds) and manager Caretaker (Chris Rock), who walks around with a clipboard and jots down Paul’s decisions. Functioning as cheerleader and mediator, Caretaker/Rock occasionally adds in wisecracks concerning the team’s racial makeup; when they convince speedy running back Megget [Nelly] to join up, Caretaker smiles and nods: “We didn’t get the whole chocolate bar, but we got a Hershey’s kiss!” Because the guards generally represent as Aryan blockheads (picking on inmates of color repeatedly), Caretaker’s blackness here (the original was white) helps to grant Paul access to black players (including Michael Irvin as receiver Deacon Moss).


Given the prison’s largely nonwhite population, such access is invaluable in assembling the team. Aside from Deacon and Megget’s crew, the members come in a movie-rainbow-style diversity, with each member defined by a reductive trait: Brucie (Nicholas Turturro) is demented; the Beast (K-1 Kickboxer Bob Sapp) is ferocious; Torres (Lobo Sebastian) glowers and smokes cigarettes; Cheeseburger Eddy (Terry Crews) eats what you think; and Turley (Dalip Singh) is a hard-hitting giant whose every utterance is unnecessarily subtitled.


The film spends too much time on the team’s practice antics (as well as their transvestite cheerleaders, featuring Tracy Morgan as Ms. Tucker) and growth-by-montages, by rousing speeches, by somber nods and wacky body slams. But The Longest Yard is about Paul’s journey from mad white boy to earnest, responsible, and righteously vengeful white man. This despite some detours into old-school ASC territory, including a frightful bit where he must play porno-spanking with the warden’s big-haired secretary (Cloris Leachman, looking as scary as she can muster), who has a crush on Paul based on the underwear ads he made as a superstar athlete), and the warden’s political advisor, who looks and speaks looks like Colonel Sanders (how this repeated joke is funny remains a mystery).


Paul’s moral evolution takes the course you know it will (even if you haven’t see the 1974 Longest Yard or the 2001 soccer/football update, Mean Machine, with the seriously athletic Vinnie Jones). And in the context of Paul’s moral evolution, the Adam Sandler Character’s signature laidbackness is something of a twist—he’s resolutely unriled, whether abused by guards, the warden, or his own teammates, which makes him a decidedly peculiar action comedy hero. Whether you accept him as a star quarterback with dead aim is another question. But as straight man to all the hubbubbing others—the inmates, the guards, the Colonel Sanders guy, even Rob Schneider, who does appear, yes, to deliver his usual line—he serves as a stillish center, half a step from the ASC MO.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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