Lords of Dogtown (United States/Germany, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Watching Lords of Dogtown, I momentarily became nostalgic for the summer of 1977, when I would ride my skateboard down my inclined driveway, then see if I could make the sharp turn onto the sidewalk without wiping out. But nostalgia is hardly a reason to recommend a movie. A narrative re-telling of events previously chronicled in the documentary Dogtown and the Z-Boys (which was directed by the writer of this film, original Z-boy Stacy Peralta), Lords of Dogtown will have limited interest for those who exist outside of the skateboarding community.

The film takes us back to the 1970s in Venice, California (in an area referred to as "Dogtown"), where a bunch of beam bums turn from surfing at the rundown Pacific Ocean Pier to competition skateboarding for Zephyrs surf shop. The team, which is funded by the perpetually drunk and/or stoned Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger), features three standouts: brash Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), showoff Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and introspective Stacy Peralta (John Robinson). This trio claims responsibility for re-inventing skateboarding, taking it from a relatively tame "tabletop" sport to one that goes vertical. By using drained backyard pools (during a drought period, water couldn't be spared to fill them) as practice areas, the so-called Z-Boys are transformed from poor white trash to overnight sensations.

Dramatically, Lords of Dogtown is inert. None of the characters attains three-dimensionality and the movie skips from one episode to another so fast that it's like viewing a greatest hits' collection. Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) invests her film with a great deal of visual style (and employs MTV editing), but it's in service of protagonists who never come alive. The real guys show more charisma in Dogtown and the Z-Boys than do the actors playing them here.

Hardwicke nails the setting. This feels like the '70s, not some filmmaker's gauzy homage to a decade that was, all things considered, pretty miserable. Strangely, because her re-creation of the time period is so uncanny and her style is frequently pseudo-documentary, there are times when I almost thought I was watching Dogtown and the Z-Boys. This version of the story doesn't stand up well to the comparison. The documentary has both more heart and energy than the re-creation.

Of the actors, Emile Hirsch and Victor Rasuk convince us that they can play jerks. John Robinson shows a moody side. Heath Ledger does a great impersonation of Val Kilmer. And Johnny Knoxville plays a sleazy promoter. Nikki Reed, who co-wrote and starred in Thirteen, is given the thankless girlfriend/sister role. Rebecca DeMornay doesn't have much more to do playing Jay's addled mother. (If makeup wasn't applied to make her look worn-down, then DeMornay has not aged well. Was Risky Business that long ago?)

Inept storytelling is one of Lords of Dogtown's great frustrations. Subplots are dropped. Romances start up, then vanish. Betrayals occur without consequences. There's a sense that more than half of the narrative was either left on the cutting room floor or never filmed. What's left is less a cohesive story than a series of episodes to propel the characters from point A to point B - and the destination doesn't impress. We end up with a manipulative denouement that is supposed to make us feel something. Unfortunately, since the character at the center of the melodrama is so poorly developed, the most heartfelt reaction Hardwicke elicits is a shrug. And that pretty much describes my response to the film as a whole. For those with real interest in the roots of this X-sport, rent the documentary and skate past this one.

Lords of Dogtown (United States/Germany, 2005)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2005-06-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Drugs, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1