“You mean, we get to hit the guards?”
“Cool Hand Luke” plus football minus the Jesus fixation. This one isn’t so much about the durability of the human spirit in the face of a cold uncaring world as much as it is about manliness and the extent to which one man will go to redeem and rediscover it. This movie does for football and good sportsmanship what Paul Newman’s “Slapshot” did for hockey. Who can resist a big game where all the ushers have shotguns and the transvestite cheerleaders have their own auxiliary version of the Supremes. Back when he was out in the real world, Axl Rose could often be seen performing in a version of the con’s cool black Mean Machine uniforms.
What could be a worse job than to be a prison guard? Can you find a major movie that has any kind of sympathy for them? Hollywood has no hesitation about supporting rapists, murderers, serial killers, and even cannibals as long as you’re not a sadistic prison guard.
Burt Reynolds starts this movie out looking just as he would in any number of the horrible car chase movies he would walk through. He stars as Paul Crewe, a former NFL quarterback and MVP, who was tossed out of the league for shaving points. Drunk and perhaps dissatisfied with his life, Reynold’s, now a kept man, takes his woman’s Maserati out for a maniacal laughing spin that devolves into a high speed chase and ends when he dumps the expensive car into a Florida Bay. For his troubles he gets 18 months in a Georgia prison and they give him a Julius Cæsar haircut that leaves him lean and ruggedly handsome.
Eddie Albert is Warden Hazen, a sadistic son of a bitch with no scruples and a long memory. He seems to be running his penitentiary for the express purpose of assembling a championship Semi-Pro football team. Hazen wants Crewe to help coach his team that has finished national runner up for five straight years. Swayed by the inhospitable current coach and quarterback to say no or face the consequences, Crewe tells Hazen that “Semi-Pro’s a joke. I just want to do my time and get out of here.” For his efforts Crewe winds up on swamp detail, where the prisoners have little sympathy for his plight.
Caretaker: Most of these old boys don’t have nothing. Never had nothing to start with. But you, You had it all. Then you let your teammates down, got yourself caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
Paul Crewe: Oh I did, did I?
Caretaker: Oh I ain’t saying you did or you didn’t. All I’m saying is that you could have robbed banks, sold dope or stole your grandmother’s pension checks and none of us would have minded. But shaving points off of a football game, man that’s un-American.
Having made his point, Albert blackmails Crewe into forming a prison team to take on the guards so they can tune up for their regular season. “The Longest Yard” has great fun assembling recruits among the huge and psychotic ne’er do wells of the penitentiary. Look especially for the 7′ 2″ Richard Kiel the guy who played Jaws in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker,” perhaps the ugliest man in the history of the world and barely in the top ten of scary presences in this movie. Reynold’s goal is to make it through the game alive. He is told that the game means more to the Warden. “He’s giving us this chance to be free for a few hours to try and be men again so he can destroy us”, Crewe is told by the gimpy former All-Pro Giant Nate Scarboro.
When the game is too close at halftime for the Warden’s comfort, Albert tells Reynold’s he’d better lose by three touchdowns or expect to be back in the swamps for the rest of eternity, and Reynold’s needs to think long and hard about his pride, his debt to his teammates, and the costs and benefits of being a man. Along the way there are plenty of dirty hits, double crosses, and an ending that Spike Lee shamelessly stole for “He Got Game.” Look for Bernadette Peter’s in an early role with giant hair that has to be seen to be believed. Reynolds at one point even asks her if she gets spider eggs in it.