A film review by Craig J. Koban

LORDS OF DOGTOWN jj
½ 

2005, PG-13, 107 mins.

Jay Adams: Emile Hirsch / Tony Alva: Victor Rasuk / Stacy Peralta: John Robinson / Sid: Michael Angarano / Kathy Alva: Nikki Reed / Skip Engblom: Heath Ledger / Philaine: Rebecca De Mornay / Topper Burks: Johnny Knoxville

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke / Written by Stacy Peralta

I don’t profess to know very much at all about the sport of skateboarding, but I can honestly acknowledge the fact that - when I was younger - I seriously wanted to be a boarder that could freely defy gravity at a moment's notice.  

Being like every other red-blooded kid that was born and raised in the Canadian Prairies, hockey was easily a first love and, to a modest degree, I achieved a respectable level of proficiency at the sport.  However, as I got older skateboarding sort of had a rebellious and breezy allure about to me.  I think children all go through their respective phases of likes and dislikes and skateboarding was no different for me.  I still remember my first board – a nifty and flamboyantly neon-colored pink and black number – I guess there was no accounting for aesthetic taste in design for the typical mid-80’s youth.  Nevertheless, I gave boarding a try and - within an afternoon -  I soon realized that I should pronounce a swift retirement from it and go back to my day job of playing recreational hockey.

To me, nostalgia always seems to invoke memories of pain and inflicting pain upon yourself.  Yes, I remember falling flat on my back trying to ice skate for the first time.  Yes, I not so fondly recollect the many bumps, bruises, and minor lacerations that I put myself through to peddle my first bike.  And, without a shadow of a doubt, I sure as hell remember my intense frustration with failing at achieving gravity-defying velocities on my skateboard.  Actually, I had a hard enough time just trying to remain vertical on the damn thing.  Funny, for a big kid that was reasonably adept on the ice with a pair of skates laced up and a hockey stick in hand, I was an abysmal failure at skateboarding.  I guess not all of us are cut out to be a legendary Z-Boy.

This, of course, allows me to make the transition into LORDS OF DOGTOWN, the new biopic that also fondly remembers a group of misfit children - the Z-Boys - who try to take up skateboarding and become as proficient with it as humanly possible.  However, unlike the uncoordinated sap that is your's truly, these angst ridden youth not only were gifted skateboarders, but they single-handedly reinvented the sport for the modern age.  These trouble making dudes from the beaches of California were not only athletes of a high caliber (let’s face it, it takes a great amount of athleticism to be a skateboarder), but they were sort of leaders of a new cultural revolution that still can be felt today.   Yes, in the summer of 1975, these Z-Boys from “Dogtown” created the contemporary sport of skateboarding and LORDS OF DOGTOWN does a generally adequate job of telling this up-and-coming story of these sports pioneers.  Sure, it gets the facts, the tone and the look of the time just right, but it's just a bit weak in it's dramatic follow-though.

This is not the first film to have tackled these beach bum mavericks.  The 2001 documentary - DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS - chronicled the rise of these youth to media stardom.  I have yet to see the documentary and whereas many other critics have labored to reveal how much more they appreciate that film to LORDS OF DOGTOWN as a travelogue piece of sporting history, I for one will not engage in such a discussion. 

It should be noted that, in a somewhat ironic way, the 2001 documentary was made by one of the original Z-Boys – Stacy Peralta - one of the young wonder kids from the 70’s that became so affluent from his skateboarding skills that he was subsequently afforded opportunities in other creative arenas.   Now, I said “ironic” because I am not sure why Peralta felt the need to follow-up his critically acclaimed film with a fictionalized retelling of the glory days of Dogtown.  I am sure that, for people who have seen DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS, watching THE LORDS OF DOGTOWN will illicit a considerable amount of cinematic deja vu, not to mention that it will also have many scratch their heads and say, “Why was this film made in the first place?”

Regardless, LORDS OF DOGTOWN has a sort of cheerful, iconic, hazy and brazen sentimentality to its subject matter and personas.  I am not all too sure how the film and its director, Catherine Hardwicke (THIRTEEN) really feels about these boys.  The film is, thankfully, multifaceted in its outlook.  The Z-Boys are presented not as squeaky-clean sports forerunners – many of them came from broken homes, smoked grass and drank, and more or less willfully caused a considerable amount of public mischief wherever they were.  Some of them were quiet and introverted, while others were vindictive and unsympathetic narcissists.  In these ways, LORDS OF DOGTOWN could be aptly described as skates-ploitation – it sort of celebrates and shuns these kids, but the more I watched the film the more I got the impression that it was getting a bit too self-congratulatory with these kids than it really should have been.  Just when you think the film would have the tenacity to delve into the darker areas of these kids’ psyches, it feels the need for swift and tidy resolutions.  That’s a shame, in a way, as Hardwicke feels too safe in celebrating these boarders than to question and criticize them.

For what it is, LORDS OF DOGTOWN does allow us to like its characters, despite their penchant for self-absorbing tendencies, like catching “big air” however they could, often while disrespecting the law.   The young men themselves all hail from the Venice Beach and Santa Monica areas of California and forge a team that goes by the name Zephyr, which itself is sponsored by a man that seems to have lived his life with Jim Morrison as his idol.  Yet, despite their proclivities to booze, babes, the chronic, and defying parental and societal authority, these stoners revolutionized the sport and achieved an amazing level of acrobatic maneuvering that was once seen as next to impossible.  I mean, I guess that you would have to be completely stoned to one day have an epiphany and decide that, hey, let’s take a skateboard and try boarding up the nearly vertical incline of an empty swimming pool.  I think it’s astoundingly more crazy – not to mention reckless and dangerous – than it sounds.  For this, the Z-Boys had a lot of grit and determination that should be commended.

The film takes the viewer back to the mid 70’s in the Venice Beach area, where surfing seems to be all the rage.  While here we are slowly introduced to a group of societal rejects that seem to grow tired and disillusioned with surfing at the rundown Pacific Ocean Pier.  As a result, most of them turn to competitive skateboarding that is being headed by Zephyrs surf shop.  Skip Engblom (the inspired Heath Ledger) runs the store and funds the kids in-between drinking, smoking grass, and saying “bro” and “dude” a lot.  The skater students he amasses have a few notable high performers.  There is Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), who is abrasive and reckless.  Then there is Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), who likes to show-off a lot.  Lastly, but certainly not least, is soft-spoken and shy Stacey Peralta (John Robinson), who seems to have skills that many do not notice, at least at first. 

So, why are these former surfer dudes so important in the annals of sports lore?  Well, for starters, this trio took a relatively tame “tabletop” sport and chiseled it into a near gymnastic spectacle.  How?  They used (or, as the film shows, broke into backyards and “borrowed”) swimming pools that were drained due to water shortages and rationing of the time and used them as key practice areas for experimentation and mastering of their skills.  It should also be noted that they could achieve these superhuman moves only because of the newest technology in skateboard wheels that, for the first time, would grip to surfaces.  Within no time it soon becomes apparent that these guys - who many consider poor white trash - are on the road to stardom.  The path to excess for these youth, unfortunately, would be beset by bitter rivalries and increasingly growing egos.

For starters, LORDS OF DOGTOWN looks amazing and Hardwicke gets an enormous amount of mileage from her art direction and use of locations and settings.  We get, very early on, and impeccable feel for Venice circa 1975.  She uses a diverse amount of tricks in her directorial arsenal to pull off the time and mood perfectly.  Color filters, grainy cinematography, and sporadic and spontaneous camera moves give the proceedings a psuedo-documentry vibe and, for once, this film manages to get the sort of diluted and cloudy look to the decade that is often flavoured with colourful and wicked excesses by other lesser films.  Hardwicke also gets highly inventive with the camera while following the Z-Boys on they skating endeavors and her style is kinetic, jumpy, fast paced, and energetic.  Without a doubt, Hardwicke encapsulates the look and feel of this period better than any other film I’ve seen recently.

Yet, it is Hardwicke’s visual mastery of the material that may have proven to be the film’s undoing.  LORDS OF DOGTOWN looks sensational, but on a story and character level the film falls sort of flat and lies lethargically.  It feels largely episodic in nature without any real feeling of a sweeping story arc.  Characters themselves are developed and then quickly neglected.  You continually get the sensation that the film is only giving us pale carbon copies of the real boys.

Now, there is nothing particularly wrong with the performances, per se, it’s just that the actors do what they can with the limited material that they are given.  Emile Hirsch, who very much reminded me of a young Tom Cruise in last year’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, does an effective job here of playing an unmitigated SOB, as does Victor Rasuk.  Rebecca Demorney has a decent time playing a ditzy flower child mother to Jay (her performance itself is much better than her vaguely defined character deserves).  Out of the entire cast, Heath Ledger is the real stand out.  At first it seems obvious that he has studied Val Kilmer’s criminally underrated performance in THE DOORS.  Ledger - as Skip -  seems to be channeling equal parts Jim Morrison and Keith Richards to good effect and his performance feels, at first at least, largely one note.  Yet, as the film continues, you really get a sense of him sinking his teeth into the role and inhabiting the inebriated loner.  All in all, it’s kind of a brilliant performance in an otherwise mediocre film.

For what it’s ultimately worth, I have to give LORDS OF DOGTOWN a negligible, but respectable, pass in terms of recommending it to others.  I am sure that if you have seen DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS then there is no real need for you to watch Hardwicke’s film.  If you have not seen that 2001 documentary, then I still would entice you to probably rent that film at your local video store before given LORDS OF DOGTOWN a look.  In terms of getting all of the period details just right and immersing us in the world of these aerial skateboarding achievers by showing their trendsetting tricks and stunts, Hardwicke does a masterful job.  In terms of forging a meaningful, inquisitive, and involving story around her impressive visuals, LORDS OF DOGTOWN wipes out under its own weight.

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