Cinema: Dirty Eleven

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Basically, The Longest Yard is a cynical, often brutal, crudely stated movie that blends two seemingly unmixable genres—the slice of sadistic prison life and the equally ancient tale of an underdog football team conquering impossible odds to win the Big Game.

What saves it, aside from good performances by Burt Reynolds and a thundering herd of supporting grotesques, is, of all things, a tough, tiny nut of valid social criticism.

Reynolds plays a former star expelled from pro football for shaving points, fired as a gigolo when he beats up his patroness and thrown into a prison that might give Papillon pause after he steals—and totals—her car. Indeed, his lot is even less happy than the typical inmate's at Citrus State Prison. The warden, played by hard-eyed, mean-drawling Eddie Albert, is a football freak ready to do anything to get a national championship for his semipro club, staffed by the guards. He asks Reynolds to help coach them. But the team captain is also captain of the guards, and jealous of his prerogatives. He suggests—with a few well-placed blows below the belt—that Reynolds turn down the warden's kind offer.

It's off to that swamp, without which a prison movie is not complete and where we have all done too much hard time. Finally, a compromise is reached. Reynolds will organize, coach and star on a team of inmates who are supposed to give the guards a tune-up game. Naturally, he recruits every psychopath in the slammer for his squad. Naturally, the game itself turns out to be more pier brawl than football—cruel but perhaps funnier than nice people like to admit. Naturally, when it looks as if the prisoners will win, Reynolds is asked to—and almost does—throw the game. Finally, he turns around and wins it when he realizes what a victory will do for his fellow cons' self-esteem and dignity. Robert Aldrich, the hell-for-leather director of items like The Dirty Dozen, fills the sound track with the crunch of every bone, the sight track with every splat of blood he can manage—terrible stuff, but viscerally stimulating. In a simple-minded way, it is also very effective, literally capable of making an audience stand up and cheer just as if they were in the stands at a real game.

Yet there is that note of redeeming social value to contend with. Screen writer Wynn (son of Keenan, grandson of Ed) has in the person of the warden wickedly parodied every businessman who ever exhorted his sales force with sporting metaphors, every overstuffed daddy who has lived out his fantasies of athletic glory by impersonating Vince Lombardi on a Little League field. The difference here is that the man has real guns, real power to extend and with hold favors. He is a genuinely frightening cautionary figure. It is too bad that the lessons his behavior might teach are often lost in the uproar of a movie that most of the time caters to the low instincts it intermittently tries to criticize. &183; Richard Schickel