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Lords of Dogtown   C-

Columbia Pictures / TriStar Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Stacy Peralta
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, John Robinson, Michael Angarano, Nikki Reed, Heath Ledger, Rebecca De Mornay, Johnny Knoxville.

Review by Sean O'Connell

America's amplified skateboard culture traces its roots back to Southern California's Venice Beach, where a pack of scrawny skate rats tested the sport's ever-shifting parameters. Pavement surfers existed before these legendary Z-Boys crashed the party, but they weren't challenging the laws of gravity and the limits of physics while riding their boards. With nothing to prove, these kids shrugged off suburban malaise, attracted high-dollar sponsors, and turned themselves into global celebrities recognized for their natural abilities to skate.

It's a great story, and one that deserves to be told. Unfortunately for Columbia's new drama Lords of Dogtown, the half-pipe history was recounted not that long ago in a comprehensive documentary titled Dogtown and Z-Boys. The 2001 doc, co-written and directed by Z-Boys founding father Stacy Peralta, traced the evolution of modern skateboarding by spotlighting the formation of the 1970s Zephyr board team. The film made a critical splash, took home audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and found an impressive following on DVD.

Which means Lords director Catherine Hardwicke has some mighty big Vans to fill. She's no stranger to critical praise, having won viewers over with her angst-driven directorial debut Thirteen. What she finds out -- the hard way, sadly -- is that it's difficult to recreate the impulse and free spirit of revolutionary times when you are three decades removed from the fires of rebellion and forced to work with generic Hollywood tools. Her version of Dogtown doesn't paint the boys as pioneers of skate culture. They instead look like what they are -- trained actors stoked to play dress-up.

Hardwicke rolls onto the scene with a recognizable cast of talents, all miscast and unsure of how to handle the material. The three teenage leads master their moving boards but can't grasp the rebellious notions behind the skate movement. Rebecca De Mornay mails in a small role as a Z-Boy's medicated mom. Then there are the Zephyr skate-shop gurus, who all seem a little drunk, a little stoned, and a little effeminate. Heath Ledger, of all people, leads the charge as he perfects a Val Kilmer impersonation that's so left-field it could earn him a role in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

The most believable Lord is the least Hollywood of the bunch. John Robinson, a handsome newcomer with Gus Van Sant's Elephant on his resume, is tapped to play Peralta. He brings no previous identity to the role and coasts by on modest charm.

The remainder of Lords rests on a rad soundtrack of 1970s rock staples and grainy cinematography shot by perpetually zooming cameras Hardwicke apparently mounted on skateboards. The production teeters on the verge of pretension for an eternity before completely wiping out, right around the time Ledger is lobbing surfboards off the roof of the Zephyr shop in the ultimate act of defiance. By that point, Hardwicke and her cast have managed the unthinkable -- they've turned these legends of the skate scene into poseurs.

Review published 06.02.2005.

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