After a string of films in which Sandler seemed intent on proving himself as someone worth taking seriously, even in light comedies such as 50 First Dates, The Longest Yard is a step backward and right over a cliff. It ranks among his worst efforts -- which says something for a man with The Waterboy, Little Nicky, Billy Madison, and the Mr. Deeds remake on his filmography. This redo of the picture that was among the first of Burt Reynolds' cannonball run to superstardom in the 1970s barely even qualifies to be called a movie; it's more a pastiche of prison-flick clichés, bound and gagged in a loop of lazy pop-music montage sequences. It could be called for that most severe of moviegoing penalties: roughing the audience.
What's most startling about this redo is how faithful it is to the original, yet without any hint of what made the '74 movie work. The story remains exactly the same, with nary an alteration, save the inevitable dumbing down as required by the MTV Films imprimatur. It guts the nuts from Tracy Keenan Wynn's original screenplay and replaces them with marbles. What was once a smart tale about defeat hiding in victory's tall shadow is now just one more stupid Sandler movie, The Waterboy promoted to starting quarterback; what was once a sordid sendup of fame is now summer camp for former Saturday Night Live cast members (Sandler, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, Rob Schneider) who get to hang with real pros (Michael Irvin, Bill Romanowski) and play catch for the cameras.
What's equally startling is that some guy named Sheldon Turner actually got paid to write this screenplay, which uses most of Wynn's original without moving a single comma; apparently, if you add in a few scenes of rolling tumbleweeds in a gothic Texas prison yard and toss in a few gay characters to bash, you deserve not only a check but also an assembly line's worth of work. The story remains unchanged from the summary on the back of the new DVD release of the 1974 original, which comes with a $5-off ticket to see the Sandler one -- but that's not nearly discount enough: MVP QB Paul Crewe (Sandler, seriously) is a forgotten burnout who, after having thrown a game long ago, now sponges off a wealthy, beautiful woman, played here by Courteney Cox Arquette and her breasts, which director Peter Segal ogles like a high-schooler visiting a strip club for the first time. Fed up with being a boy toy -- a "whore," as model Anitra Ford called Reynolds in the darker original -- Crewe steals her tony sports car, trashes it and several cop cars, and winds up being tossed in the clink, where the warden demands he assemble a team of cons to play the semipro guards or wind up with a longer sentence. He relents, after a series of beatings, and leads the team to a victory that will surely feel like a loss: You don't humiliate the screws without getting screwed.
Directed by Robert Aldrich, whose 1955 Kiss Me Deadly ranks among the classic noirs of the era and whose 1962 What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? elicits titters and chills, the original was smartly cast and deftly shot. Its football sequences, which eat up almost the entire second hour, have the rare feel of the real thing, perhaps because Green Bay Packers legend Ray Nitschke really was trying to tear the head off former college baller Reynolds. Aldrich was essentially remaking one of his own movies, The Dirty Dozen: Crewe rounds up the prison's mangiest denizens for his squad, including the requisite psycho killer, gentle giant, and kindly retard. But the film was never sure if it was meant to play as comedy or drama, which worked to its advantage; Reynolds, on the verge of realizing his was to be a career of gum-smacking and wisecracking and lines of dialogue delivered with a high-pitched giggle, was a wry straight man among so many crooked bastards, which made the happy ending that much more of a downer.
Director Segal's redo plays not like an interpretation of the original, but a cover performed by someone too tone-deaf to notice he's gotten everything wrong. It strains to be funny where the original's gags were efficiently deadpan, yet it's also so unbearably lazy, stooping to cliché and caricature when it backs itself into the shower. Sandler, aping Burt Reynolds' every move with the disadvantage of not actually being Burt Reynolds, barely even registers here, so lost is he among the cardboard cutups (Nick Turturro Jr. and Tracy Morgan, playing so gay they've got to be committing some kind of celluloid hate crime) who populate this mess. Segal, creator of one good Sandler movie (50 First Dates) and one lousy Sandler movie (Anger Management), and first-timer Turner make so little effort that not even the guys on the field seem to be sweating. Reynolds shows up, too, to collect a paycheck that might bounce if he doesn't cash it before this bankrupt enterprise's opening weekend.