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Friday, May 27, 2005
Sports Guy's Top Sports Movies: No. 3

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Here's the best way I can explain it ...

Sometimes you just never mess with an original.

Imagine that Al Pacino's career was going 10 times worse than it was right now, mainly because he had gotten too much plastic surgery and looked like he was wearing an Al Pacino Halloween mask. Then imagine they remade "The Godfather" with Adam Sandler as Michael, Rob Schneider as Sonny, David Spade as Fredo, Chris Rock as Tom Hagan, Courtney Cox as Connie, Eminem as Carlo Rizzo and Pacino as Don Vito Corleone – marketed as a "funnier, hipper version!" of the original classic – with Pacino's appearance making it seem like he endorsed the idea (when they were actually taking advantage of a washed-up actor who needed a job).

Wouldn't you be outraged? Wouldn't the thought of a bloated Pacino stumbling around with an orange in his mouth ruin your entire week? Wouldn't you want to collect a month's worth of dog dumps and mail them to the studio that greenlighted the idea?

Sports Guy At The Movies
In no particular order, Bill Simmons presents his "72 Best Sports Movies Of The Past 33 Years." Here's what we have so far:

  • No. 57 – Youngblood
  • No. 39 – *61
  • No. 30 – Varsity Blues
  • No. 55 – Remember the Titans
  • No. 40 – He Got Game
  • Well, now you know how I felt after watching Sandler's remake of "The Longest Yard." And in case you're thinking to yourself, "Wait a second, there's a big difference between 'The Godfather' and 'The Longest Yard,'" it's actually not as big of a difference as you might think. Consider the following things:

    1. The original "Yard" was the best football movie of all-time. Hands down.

    2. On my "Best 72 Sports Movies of the Past 33 Years" list, I have "Yard" ranked No. 3. That's right. Number three.

    3. As happy-go-lucky quarterback Paul Crewe, Burt Reynolds (in his absolute prime) was likable enough that he assaulted his girlfriend in the opening scene and you forgave him three seconds later. He was funny enough that Sandler (one of the most successful comic actors in recent years) wasn't half as funny playing the same part. He was charismatic enough that no current actor would have been in the ballpark for a remake (with the possible exception of George Clooney). Because Burt played ball at Florida State, he looked like a right-handed Steve Young in the football scenes – even now, it's impossible to believe that this was a Hollywood actor scrambling around and throwing 50-yard bombs. And since they staged the climactic game like a real game, with actors on both sides legitimately trying to win – except for a few choreographed plays to move the plot along – Reynolds was getting genuinely hammered like Tony Eason in Super Bowl XX on every play. Other than DeNiro in "Raging Bull," it's the finest performance by a lead actor in the history of sports movies. Nobody else comes close.

    "Hi, I'm Burt and you can't carry my jock."
    4. Here's how influential "Yard" was: No sports movie had ever attempted to be funny, introspective, dramatic and realistic at the same time. This was a movie with cross-dressing cheerleaders; players teaching each other how to throw illegal elbows and use brass knuckles; wise-cracking heroes throwing footballs into people's groins; guys bragging "I think I broke his [bleeping] neck." This was a movie with a final game that looked like a real game, right down to a revolutionary slow-motion camera capturing the final play (one of the better "ending that ties into the title" sequences ever). And it holds up better than any sports flick from that decade (which adds to its brilliance, I think).

    Also, because "Yard" was the first successful modern sports movie, we watched its main themes reappear in subsequent movies about other sports: A down-on-his-luck loser finds redemption ("Rocky"); a ragtag group of misfits and underdogs rises to the occasion against an indomitable foe ("Slapshot," "Fast Break," "Bad News Bears"); and a group of hastily trained prisoners beats the odds against a well-trained, higher-profile team ("Victory"). Those are five of the best 20 sports movies ever, and I'm not sure any of them would have happened without "Yard."

    So the question remains ...

    Why remake a movie that was this good and this influential? Are we really that tapped for new ideas?

    (Wait, don't answer that.)


    It's going to take a lot more than Nelly to give Sandler street cred.
    Without spending too much time on the remake, it follows the same discouraging formula of every generic sports comedy now: Lowbrow laughs to keep your attention; gratuitous cameos and shameless stunt casting (with only Nelly, Michael Irvin and a mustachioed Dan Patrick coming off well); the requisite "SportsCenter" cameo; a final game between the guards and convicts that's televised on ESPN2 with Chris Berman announcing (let's just say this: if you're a Berman fan, you'll probably enjoy the final game; if you're not, then ...); and over-the-top football scenes loaded with plays where players get tackled and spin in the air like helicopters. Plus, we have two monkey wrenches: Chris Rock playing a wise-cracking Caretaker and managing to include the phrase " ... my black ass!" in every joke; and a twist on the ending that was between 100 to 150 times inferior to the original, depending on your point of view.

    Comparing the two versions, every performance in the original was superior. Eddie Albert destroys a worn-out looking James Cromwell as the wickedly evil Warden. As much as I liked Nelly in the remake, he wasn't as good as Harry Caesar as Granville. The late, great Michael Conrad couldn't have been better as Nate Scarboro – it's simply not possible – so seeing Reynolds playing that same role was morbidly depressing on about eight different levels (see the Pacino analogy above). As Captain Knauer, Ed Lauter put himself on the map as a sports movie staple; the remake's version of Knauer was so bland, I can't even remember who played him. Pop, Unger, Bodanski ... really, only the Caretaker battle was close, with Rock (basically playing himself) versus the underrated Jim Hampton (and I'm calling that a draw).

    Forget the movies, Burt could have started for half the teams in the NFL.
    Of course, the biggest discrepancy was Reynolds' Paul Crewe character, which Sandler vainly believed he could pull off without anyone saying, "I knew Burt Reynolds, I loved Burt Reynolds ... you're no Burt Reynolds." Since they filmed the football scenes so tightly (quick edits, no wide shots), there's no way to tell where Sandler ranked on the Realistic Athlete Scale (with Reynolds being a 17-out-of-10 and Tim Robbins being a negative-5). My guess is that Sandler was shaky enough that they masked his "abilities" in post-production, a strategy that Bill Parcells should consider with Drew Bledsoe this season. But does it even matter? Following Reynolds was a no-win situation – if you loved the original, you end up thinking less of Sandler for being conceited enough to attempt this (and I'm a Sandler fan, so I can't even imagine how the anti-Sandler people must feel). There's no way Sandler should have played Paul Crewe. That's the bottom line.

    Which raises a larger point: When is it OK to remake a movie? And should there be specific rules in place? I would say that you can't have a remake unless ...

    Rule No. 1: The original has become dated enough that it affects the movie's rewatchability.

    This doesn't apply for the original "Yard," which drags a little in the first hour but remains just as funny to this day. Even 31 years later, it still lays claim to one of the best extended game sequences ever filmed (right up there with "Victory"), partly because of Reynolds, partly because the guys were really popping each other, and partly because director Robert Aldrich relied on the wide shot and avoided dizzying camera movement and crazy closeups (now standards for every football movie). Also, the premise was brilliant – a disgraced QB gets sent to prison, the warden forces him to organize a game between the convicts and the guards, and the QB ultimately finds redemption when he doesn't sell out for the first time in his life. The end.

    Report Card (1974 VERSION)
    Plot: A+

    Production Value: A–

    Sports Scenes: A+

    Chill Scenes (4): A+ (Caretaker's funeral; the "When you popped the Warden, was it worth it?" scene; Crewe's final speech; and the final TD.)

    Climactic Game Scene: A+

    Final Scene: A+

    DVD Extras: B+ (2 mini-documentaries and an enlightening director's commentary with Reynolds and producer Albert Ruddy)

    Intentional Comedy: A

    Unintentional Comedy: C+

    Defining Unintentional Comedy Scene: How they seemingly looped the same scene of Eddie Albert slowly standing up in shock during the same scenes.

    Unpredictability: A– (Caretaker's death was a shocker)

    Rewatchability: A+

    Overall Implausibility: D–

    Dated-ness: A–

    Gratuitous Sex/Nudity: F–

    Lead Actor: A+ (the only one I'm ever handing out for this category)

    Supporting cast: A+ (for Nate Scarboro and Caretaker)

    Wet Blanket Girlfriend/Token Hot Chick: B–

    Token Fat Guy: None

    Token Angry Black Guy: None

    That Guy Factor: A

    Defining Quote: "We've come too far to stop now... for Granny, for Nate... for Caretaker. Let's do it!"

    Intangibles: A+

    And yes, certain modern classics are dated enough that a remake would work. Like "Death Wish" and "Dirty Harry" – great premises, dated as hell. Even pantheon action movies like "The Warriors" and "Escape from New York" suffer from cheesy special effects and antiquated premises (for instance, now one of the Warriors would have had a cell phone, or maybe even a stolen Sidekick for Internet access). But there was no reason to remake "Yard," if only because they couldn't stray too far from the original, and they certainly weren't going to top it. So the end result was like watching high school kids putting on a play or something. Oh, look, Sandler said the "I can't do that" line just like Reynolds did! Congratulations.

    Rule No. 2: There was something wrong with the original movie.

    Here's a perfect example: "Silent Rage" with Chuck Norris, which I named my "12th most underrated movie ever" two summers ago. The beauty of "Rage" was that it was a low-budget, poorly-acted "Halloween" rip-off that improbably tried to combine karate and science fiction, but the premise was fantastic: a serial killer brought back to life in a secret experiment by an ambitious doctor – only now the guy can't die. Could you remake it with better production value and better actors, preferably someone a little less wooden than Chuck Norris? Absolutely. But if you're talking about remaking "Halloween" ... now that's a different story. In fact, let's change the subject before somebody starts getting ideas.

    Rule No. 3: If the first two rules don't apply, you go in a totally different direction.

    Which is what Sandler's version tried to do – turn it into a hard-hitting, hip-hop, cameo-laden comedy. Only one problem. If you're playing up the comedy and giving me scenes where A.) Sandler gets into a car crash with 20 cop cars, B.) Sandler gets coldcocked 20 different times during a basketball game and looks fine afterwards, and C.) Sandler is cracking one-liners in every scene ... then you can't kill off Rock's Caretaker character to set up the final game. Either you're an over-the-top, rollicking, in-your-face sports comedy or you're not. You can't play it both ways.

    Rule No. 4: No actors from the first movie appear in the remake.

    Sorry, it's creepy. Like remarrying and having your first wife as one of the bridesmaids to show your kids that the wedding has Mom's approval. Maybe it's a nice thing to do, but it's ultimately distracting and weird. Even when Lauter had his cameo on the golf course, I was cringing. And again, I can't rationally discuss Reynolds' appearing in this movie. Let's just move on.

    An intimidating team picture, but not with "old" Burt on the team.
    Rule No. 5: If you're ignoring the previous four rules and forging ahead, you can't leave out crucial moments of the original that everyone is waiting for.

    For instance, Crewe's walking over to the bench before the final play, then getting on one knee and giving his speech ("We've all come too far to stop now ... for Granny, for Nate ... for Caretaker ... let's do it!") was my favorite moment in the original movie. My second favorite moment was when Crewe is deciding whether or not to insert himself back into the game after the Warden's chilling "if you don't lose by 21 points, I'm pinning Caretaker's death on you" threat, and he asks Pop (the old guy) if it was worth 30 years when Pop slugged the Warden in the mouth, and Pop thinks about it for a second and says, "For me it was." Love that scene.

    Well, Moment No. 1 didn't appear in the remake at all, which is like remaking "48 Hours" without Reggie Hammond's famous scene at Torchy's. And they tinkered with Moment No. 2 enough that it just made me angry that they didn't stick to the original lines.

    The question remains ...

    Why even remake it? I asked my old intern (Jamie) that one when we were leaving a "Yard" screening two weeks ago. At the time, I was considerably more disgusted than him, mainly because my head was pounding after enduring the final game. Jamie wasn't as bothered because he was able to tune out the play-by-play, explaining, "I'm used to tuning him out in real life, this wasn't much different." Still, he didn't seem nearly as violated by the movie as I was. So when I asked him, "You loved the first one, right," he glanced to the ground, embarrassed.

    Next time, go with "Happy Gilmore 2".
    "I forgot to tell you," he said. "I never saw the first one."

    "Seriously?"

    "Yeah, I never saw it. That's probably why I enjoyed this one a little more than you did. It's your typical Sandler movie, you know? Exactly what I expected from start to finish."

    "Well, except for Courtney Cox's breasts in the opening scene."

    "Yeah, I wasn't expecting those ... "

    Anyway, that conversation made me realize something. There's an entire generation out there who may not have known that the original "Longest Yard" was one of the best five sports movies of all-time. So here's my advice to those people. Instead of spending $10 on a ticket for the new movie, drive down to your local electronic store and spend $9.99 on the DVD. Not only will you save a penny, you'll end up seeing a movie that's three times as good. So do it for Paul Crewe. Do it for Granny. Do it for Nate. (Sad pause.) Do it for Caretaker.

    Just do it.

    • Final grade for the 1974 version: A+
    • Final grade for the 2005 version: C–

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.