Review: “Lords of Dogtown”

What is essentially a Hollywood narrative-driven remake of the award-winning “Dogtown and Z-Boys” documentary, ‘Lords’ is a grittier and more urban than expected coming of age tale. The story is simple – four guys with a passion for surfing and skating become neighbourhood heroes and later world champions at the latter.

Along the way there’s the standard tales of exploitation, the double-edged sword of fame, and the loss of innocence as egos get in the way of friendship. It seems like very ordinary genre stuff and a glossing over of true events to fit a mold (no surprise considering one of the Z-Boys wrote it), but it is saved from being dismissed by a variety of elements.

One is Hardwicke’s directing. With gritty camera moves that hug the ground traveling with the skaters, combined with solid editing, it has an in your face amateurness and reality that make the sequences enjoyable and believable. She has a strong sense of the visual and, combined with a thoroughly convincing recreation of the ghetto that was Venice Beach in the 1970’s, delivers a film that looks and feels far more professional than the story itself. Another is the performances, in particular Hirsch’s brooding emotional fury, DeMornay in a small but solid role as Hirsch’s mother, and Angarano’s committed work despite being a somewhat cobbled together character.

Ledger delivers a very Val Kilmer-esque role as Skip, a surf shop owner with an overbite and out loud personality – its a character that adds needed life to the all too serious subject matter, even if it will divide audiences with some considering him far too over the top. He’s also ultimately let down with the way the film wraps up his character which goes from somewhat crazed mentor to a complete wreck with nothing left.

Johnny Knoxville has a fun but throwaway role as a rich promoter, and look for cute cameos ranging from Tony Hawk to Alexis Arquette in drag. The other actors across the board convincingly portray their age and roles, and the stunt skating mixed with real actor effects are seamless throughout.

The plot meanders for the most part with only a few solid moments – Hirsch’s family problems, the trials of the urethane tires, and a great sequence with the guys discovering drought ridden LA’s empty pools yield great skating rinks.

Towards the end it becomes cliche and melodramatic, especially when the film moves away from the slums and into the ‘world stage’. Attempts to explain the attitude changes of these Z-Boys are somewhat superficial and ultimately lead nowhere, especially Hirsch’s Jay Adams whose character has the most radical shifts but the least explanation of the trio.

As reality comes crashing down, the movie goes in some darker directions ranging from skinheads to the ubiquitous sick friend subplots but it all comes together a little too nicely. Ultimately it’s a little too Hollywood for the skating crowd, a little too gritty for a mainstream audience.

It’s the kind of film that’ll probably do well in the home video and DVD market, but hasn’t much of a theatrical appeal outside of the young male market. Hardwicke and the various actors all deliver good jobs, it’s just a shame the material they had to work with is the one thing the Z-Boys were not – conventional.