Lords of Dogtown

Movies Reviews
Lords of Dogtown

(photo: Heath Ledger as skater Skip Engblom)

In the early 1970s a scruffy, surf-bedraggled group of misfits took a simple toy, and—against the backdrop of decrepit, forsaken Venice, Calif.—planted the seeds for the sport of skateboarding as we know it. They were the subject of the award-winning documentary Dogtown and Z-boys, which was filmed and written by one of their own: Stacy Peralta (later known for discovering superstar Tony Hawk and the rest of the Bones Brigade skate team, and co-owning the skateboard company Powell-Peralta).

In the concrete wake of the success of Z-boys, a tableau celebrating their poetic, primordial skateboarding style, production began on a Hollywood feature portraying this ebullient band of California scofflaws. First Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit was to direct (whew). Then David Fincher (Panic Room) backed out after production disagreements (he wanted real skateboarders instead of actors with skate training, and a $70 million budget). Luckily, Peralta (now the screenwriter) had seen the bold, hyper-kinetic teen drama Thirteen, and director Catherine Hardwicke was enlisted. Not only did she reinvigorate the sagging, demoralized production, but she did her best to repair a flat, all-testosterone script, as well. Finally, Lords of Dogtown came to fruition.

The result is a fictional portrayal of the Dogtown years in all its lava-lamp- and-1970s-gritty-guitar-rock glory. It’s a glimpse into a salt-crusted, sunny world where dads lone their surfboards to their sons, where moms wear dirty Jethro Tull T-shirts, and new Polyeurethane skateboard wheels are surreptitiously treated like nefarious contraband. We learn that up until now, “skateboarding” was treated by the masses as a fad, and that the “competitions” were comparable to campy, childish magic shows that feature balancing and headstands, and the riders might as well be doing tricks with full-body yo-yos. The attitude and fury we Mountain Dew drinkers equate with the sport was non-existent.

Enter badass nucleus of protagonists: Stacy Peralta, Jay Adams and Tony Alva (to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” Then Allman Brothers, Ted Nugent et al—constant reminders that, hey, it’s the ’70s!)

First there’s Peralta, who’s portrayed by the likeable but stiff John Robinson (Elephant). He’s the do-gooder “straight” character, whose cascading blond locks might as well be a crewcut in his peers’ eyes, because he has a summer job at a pizza restaurant, drives a car and (gasp!) wears a watch. Innocence radiates from Robinson’s smooth, boyish face. Ultimately, he’s the responsible one. Next is the taciturn, brooding Jay Adams (Emile Hirsche, Girl Next Door). Adams is a skateboarding prodigy, but he’s volatile and boils with angst; Hirche plays the part less like a human being and more like a chimpanzee. Jay’s anger is fueled by his father’s leaving, and he’s forced to fend for his estranged mother (Rebecca DeMornay). Last is Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk, Raising Victor Vargas). Alva is the ego, the hirsute, cocksure Hispanic who has the skating chops and the mouth to boot, an early skateboarding Cassius Clay. It’s Alva’s intention to take over the world, one skate-park at a time.

Team Peralta/Hardwicke has set up the pieces: a Peralta vs. Alva skating rivalry, while Adams spirals out of control (far too carefree to ever put on a ridiculous, opalescent jersey and get “in the game”).

Hardwicke said the point of this film is to “see all the stuff that is not possible to get in the documentary: get inside their bedrooms, watch them talk to mom and see them with a girlfriend, etc.” In other words, it’s supposed to be a character-driven film.

Unfortunately, these three protagonists can’t grip the audience quite like their skateboards can the contours of a swimming pool. As opposed to the colorful action sequences, which are impressive (and many times we recognize the actors’ respective prowess on the board—they were, for the most part, trained by their real-life counterparts), the plot is amazingly disengaging. For instance: Jay steals Stacy’s girlfriend, who also happens to be Tony’s sister, because prude “Stacy,” for no other reason that we learn, refuses an advance to mug down with her in a yard—in full view of a house party (An onlooking Jay makes his subsequent move and beds her that very evening). However believable such a course of events is—especially for teenage, ADD, adrenaline-sport pioneers—it’s not enough for us to either feel sorry for Stacy or dislike Jay. And any tension flatlines after Stacy moves on and inexorably makes his buck, landing a new girlfriend in the process.

As a result, the film is almost entirely shouldered by Heath Ledger, who portrays Dogtown’s venerable Boy Scout master from Hell, Skip Engblom, with a gesticulating Val Kilmer-as-Jim-Morrison flair while nailing Engblom’s real, sandy, hippy-insouciant accent.

Hardwicke shudders when asked to comment.

“First of all, we never intended on any [comparisons to Kilmer],” Hardwicke says. “Heath hung out with the real Skip, and if I had realized that there was gonna be a connection, I probably would’ve tried anything in the world not to do that. I suppose we could have done something about Heath’s hair, but you know, whatever. It’s all water under the bridge.”

Regardless of intentions, Ledger was blessed with the only character with enough dimension to pull in the audience (and his rock star disposition enhances his appeal). You oscillate, unsure of his intentions: does he truly love these kids or is he merely using them to hock his line of Zephyr skateboards? Is he a heartwarming father figure with an unfortunate sneering edge, or is he just a feral-eyed drunk out to get his hands on the filthy lucre? It’s the perfect temperament to lure these kids into his world and welcome their initial, unflinching adoration. At the most compelling moment in the film, you see Engblom’s cool unravel in one drunken evening, and his control over the skaters comes crashing down, literally, as he passes out on the roof of his shop and a bottle of vodka leaves his fingertips and explodes on the concrete below. Meanwhile, his skaters are leaving, and the Dogtown party is over…

Lords of Dogtown is in love with itself, and thus suffers. We’re blinded by the real skaters’ love for their past, which is spread all over the film like a battered quilt; they did their doppelganger’s stunts. (In fact, it was a gas to try and point out the actual Dogtown skaters as they made cameos—see Hirche’s Jay Adams buy a six-pack for the real Adams at a house party). Instead of showing attitude, it forces it. Basically, the documentary would be pissed.

But in the end, we realize that these guys not only created an extreme sport, but a full-on cultural phenomenon. Had Jay Adams not attacked the Delmar skating contest with his furious style fueled by teen angst and the middle finger, we would probably not know Tony Hawk (who makes a goofy cameo as an astronaut), a billion-dollar market would never have existed, and the entire Do-the-Dew extreme generation would be venting their angst in other ways. This “fictionalized” version doesn’t address the future, because, the focus is on the characters, the time period, the then. And it’s unfortunate that the plot was stretched so thin over so many protagonists, and we can’t help but care more about how well they carved those dried-up swimming pools, and what they did for the rest of us.

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