Back before Smokey and the Bandit and that whole Loni Anderson thing, Burt Reynolds was a serious actor for about five minutes in a row, but he always had trouble taking himself seriously, and therefore so did we. Deliverance showed what he was capable of ' a man's man who could rustle up some grub with a bow and arrow. But by 1974's The Longest Yard, Reynolds had already incorporated into his acting a sometimes invisible, sometimes all-too-visible wink at the audience. He was built to play a heavy ' those beady eyes, that love-'em-and-leave-'em body. But he didn't want to play the heavy. He wanted to play the laid-back stud who can't help but laugh at his own laid-back studliness. Exit Deliverance, enter Dom Deluise.
Reynolds didn't seem like he was trying very hard in The Longest Yard, a prison comedy about a football game between the guards and inmates at a Florida state penitentiary. But seeming like you're not trying very hard can sometimes be the result of a great deal of effort. And there's no denying that Reynolds carried the movie all the way to the goal line. He'd been a halfback at Florida State, so he looked the part of a former NFL quarterback who's been caught shaving points. And the cockiness ' or, if you prefer, the sexual charisma ' that seemed built into the very way he walked stood him in good stead as he limned a character who nearly gets the shit-eating grin wiped off his face. As an actor, he knew how to take a licking and keep on ticking.
It's hard to imagine Adam Sandler posing in the nude for Cosmo, even harder to imagine Cosmo asking him to, but slipping his feet into Reynolds' old cleats in Peter Segal's remake of The Longest Yard must have struck somebody as within the realm of possibility. For here he is, exhibiting considerably less heft than Reynolds, who didn't exactly put Marlon Brando out of work. Like Reynolds, Sandler has an amiable vibe that can be mistaken for laziness. What he doesn't have is any sexual charisma. When his character, Paul "Wrecking" Crewe, is described, in the movie's first scene, as the "boy toy" of a high-powered something or other played by Courteney Cox, you have to wonder whether she's been getting her money's worth.
You also have to wonder whether Crewe would last five minutes in prison or, for that matter, a football game. Luckily, the movie's large cast takes over when Crewe arrives at a Texas state penitentiary manned by guards who look like they start each day by jamming hypodermic needles in their butts. (Where's Jose Canseco when you need him?) Like the original, The Longest Yard is drenched in machismo, sending a goon-platoon of testosterone-addled monsters our direction. Also like the original, it sends up the whole idea of machismo, undercutting the thick-necked dummies every step of the way. My personal favorite: the 800-pound gorilla who, in the sweetest little voice you ever heard, says to Crewe, "Will you teach me to football?"
He certainly will. Whereas Reynolds, in the original, had to be convinced to care about anybody other than himself, Sandler treats his charges like the children he's never had. And Cool Hand Luke turns into The Bad News Bears. Robert Aldrich, who directed the 1974 version, must have enjoyed letting the air out of his own tires, having inflated 1968's The Dirty Dozen to blockbuster status. But he wasn't just joking around with The Longest Yard. It was meant as a thinly veiled critique of the Nixon administration, which had strong-armed its opponents while preaching law and order. "He's Nixon!" Aldrich said at the time about Eddie Albert, who, in a delightful performance that was both menacing and ingratiating, played the prison's football-crazy warden.
James Cromwell wields the power in the new version, and although he's quite capable of hitting both notes, the script settles for menacing. Likewise, it settles for broad comedy over more specific satire. There may be something to the fact that Cromwell's warden is planning to run for governor in what we now think of as Bush country, but if so, the movie doesn't follow up on it. Instead, it just kind of moseys down the field, content to score the occasional field goal. Chris Rock's around as a guy who wouldn't last five seconds in prison or, for that matter, a comedy club. And Burt Reynolds, his face stiff with age and attempts to defy age, shows up as a lifer who knows a few things about football. Is he still winking at us? It's hard to tell.