Catherine Hardwicke turns from girl problems to boy problems for Lords of Dogtown, translating Thirteen‘s Angeleno teen ennui into a narrative account of the early days of skateboarding, adapted by screenwriter Stacy Peralta from his documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. Leaner and sharper than its fast-and-furious TV spots would let on, Lords follows the fortunes of four skating pioneers: strutting Tony Alva (Raising Victor Vargas‘s Victor Rasuk, turned West Coast bro), brooding badass Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), nebbishy runt Sid (Michael Angarano), and teen Peralta (Elephant‘s baby-faced John Robinson), scripted by his adult self as an uptight skate wonk.
The crew starts as a gaggle of miniature beach punks, incubating in a Venice Beach of rotting piers, zonked-out hippie parents, and the chaotic surf shop of low-rent entrepreneur Skip Engblom—portrayed by Heath Ledger as a humanoid Spuds MacKenzie with a fly-catching SoCal drawl—who assembles the Z-Boys into a ratty competition team. Once they’re recognized for their street-savvy innovative skills by the impresarios of the nascent pro circuit, Alva and Peralta zip vertically into scene stardom, while Adams descends into poorly sponsored cholo-esque delinquency, complete with bandanna and flannel.
Punctuated with legitimately engagingaction bits, grimy pavement-level sound recording, and the occasional blink of wheel-cam, the film’s well-cast character study counterbalances its function as self-hagiog-raphy; Peralta carefully paints his generation with kindly brushstrokes (after positioning himself as good-kid center, whose only sin is working too hard) while skate-culture cameos by Tony Hawk and Johnny Knoxville (as usual, dealing instant scene death with every line) provide expected insider fan service. Channeling Amy Heckerling for the post-emo era, Hardwicke’s pop-Cassavetes melodrama nevertheless rides as smoothly as a big-budget after-school special, capturing youth struggles from an appropriately blown-out teen’s-eye perspective. Parents and their professional analogues are fallible agents of love, handicapped by their own eternal West Coast adolescence. The director stagflates the film’s hardscrabble ’70s environs until one can almost hear the dull clinking of food stamp tokens inside a macramé purse, providing the protags with a survival-level rationale for selling out as fast as their little urethane wheels will take them.
Such is the logic of the sports biopic, in which flights of talent and ambition need best be undergirded by a morally correct narrative engine, powered by existential necessity; audiences forgive the rumbling of a stomach before the feeding of an ego. So Dogtown‘s grubby recession looks like a playground romp next to Cinderella Man‘s ashen Depression-era setting, an all the more appropriate motivation for its boxer-hero’s brutally agonistic slugfests. Russell Crowe updates his Gladiator role to the 20th century, portraying real-life prizefighter Jim Braddock as a ringside messiah whose own late-career comeback from washed-up working-class punching bag to world champeen not only feeds his starving family, but provides the sallow-fleshed masses with—cough—something to believe in.
Despite the tale’s dusty pedigree, Ron Howard spins a ticket-worthy two-plus hours of movie-movie entertainment. Paul Giamatti fast-talks as Braddock’s suspendered manager, Joe Gould, playing the role of supportive man-spouse, after his real wife (Renée Zellweger) hennishly urges him away from pugilism. Beat down by the nation’s economic bottoming-out, Braddock lets out his class rage on the bodies of fellow travelers (in the ring, he says, “at least I know who’s hittin’ me”) until he reaches the ultimate anger object: hulking pretty-boy Hollywood-type Max Baer (Craig Bierko), complete with flossy showgirl entourage and the acme of ’30s rich-male villain wear, a leonine fur coat. Having killed two opponents, Baer long-arms his literally deadly head blows with a showy grin; he’s a mere monocle away from functioning as a populist caricature of ruthless capitalism itself.
Howard keeps the action tight, with most of the plot used as elaborate and efficient setup for the film’s climactic 20-minute battle. A few period details go a long way: Gould’s barren upper-middle-class apartment, emptied of all but the attitude of wealth; sports reporters jamming on stand-up typewriters flush against ringside; Zellweger and kids stealing wood from an Esso sign after their electricity has been shut off; a boxer with a gnarly, potato-like face straight out of a WPA painting. Aside from a handful of fairy-tale motifs, riffing on the Damon Runyon-coined title, the most enigmatic reference seems to be thrown in for obscure historical touch: a bank of coming-attractions posters advertising S.O.S. Iceberg, a Leni Riefenstahl mountain film. Not quite enough for a WW II omen, they might hint at seeing Cinderella Man as a mythic-democratic Triumph of the Will.
Future analysts of American culture may be just as perplexed at the Adam Sandler-Chris Rock remake of ’70s comedy The Longest Yard, in which a ragtag football team of multicultural prison inmates is assembled to hit the gridiron against a steroided phalanx of Aryan Southern guards—and will no doubt ponder why an incarceration-crazy society ends up rooting for the objects of its own control anxiety as comedic underdogs. Add to this otherwise painless comedy an unmysterious obsession with feminized men as objects of ridicule, from a cleverly grotesque troupe of prison bitch cheerleaders to a tedious peppering of fops and faggots. No uplifting populism here: In a man’s world, even the underdogs get their own underdogs to piss on.