I have never moved onto adulthood, so this is normality for me.
— Michael Irvin, “First Down and Twenty-Five to Life”
“There is a darkness, there is an underlying tone that, you know, you can’t win. These men are in this prison for a reason. But,” says director Peter Segal in “First Down and Twenty-Five to Life,” the making-of documentary on Paramount’s “Collector’s Edition” of 2005’s The Longest Yard, “what you can do is you can change yourself, rehabilitation and respect.” This is one earnest director. He goes on to connect his film’s ostensible themes to the actual production. In constructing the prison-in-a-West Texas-desert set, the crew included “the three R,” respect, responsibility, and rehabilitation, they were built into the tower.” And so, you know, these ideas became important to the film.
Whether Longest Yard crewmembers were quite so enamored of these injunctions doesn’t come up in the documentary. In fact, it offers little else in the way of background or motivations for the film (like, why remake the beloved Burt Reynolds version, anyway?), but it does provide plenty of shots of sunburned artists — including production designer Perry Blake and first assistant director John Hockridge — talking about the construction, the weather (Segal jokes, “Apparently someone left out the fact that it was monsoon season”), and the football footage (“Lights, Camera, Touchdown,” one of three feeble featurettes, offers even more information on this topic).
The football footage and the prisoners-united narrative frame only set up for the usual Adam Sandler Character. Again, he brings a mix of sardonic and affable, goofy and charming, with that barely repressed violent streak (“Sandler makes you believe, that’s the one quality he has in real life,” says Chris Rock in the documentary). While earlier versions of this persona range from antic to tedious, almost all versions are beloved by fans (Little Nicky being a notable exception).
The latest incarnation is part standard Sandler vehicle and part something else, in that it grafts the usual character onto another one, once well known and now largely forgotten, namely, the old Burt Reynolds Character (the one with some integrity and still-appealing snark, and who appears here as Crewe’s in-house mentor, who gets to suit up and play, for real, on a play where he’s tackled by Brian Bosworth). 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 heterosexualized, and the disruption more delirious.
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 — establish 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 Bosworth, wrestler Steve Austin, and an initially ignoble guard/QB played the always excellent William Fichtner).
Crewe agrees after the guards harass him, and gains respect when he spends a week in the “hot box.” His admirers include Nate (Reynolds, of whom costar Stone Cold Steve Austin says in the documentary, “There’s only one Elvis Presley, there’s only one John Wayne, and there’s only one Burt Reynolds”) and Caretaker (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: “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 grants Paul access to black players (including 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 featurette, “The Care and Feeding of a Pro Athlete” reports on athletes’ diets, and includes such throwaways as Bill Goldberg’s “Oh god, I can eat 40 egg whites in a day, easy!”)
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 seen 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 hub-bubbing 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.