The trouble with remakes is that the compulsion to compare them to the original is so strong. In the case of a remake that tackles a relatively recent film, it's even more difficult to avoid the comparison. Lords of Dogtown is such a film: though there's no previous feature film on the topic, it's very much a remake of the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. Chronicling the rise (and sometimes fall) of a group of young toughs in Venice, California who set the skateboarding world on fire with their talent as part of the Zephyr team, Lords of Dogtown follows the trajectory of Dogtown and Z-Boys pretty much to the letter. As to whether you like the results or not, it's down to whether you like seeing this slice of skateboarding history straight-up or acted out.
I'll be up-front and say that while I found Lords of Dogtown to be reasonably entertaining, I don't think it offers anything that Dogtown and Z-Boys doesn't also offer more effectively. Keep in mind that I liked Dogtown and Z-Boys quite a bit, of course; the documentary wasn't perfect, but it was quite compelling and had a very distinctive style, so that it's a lot more memorable than, I think, Lords of Downtown will be.
So what's this film all about? It's based on the true story of the "Z-Boys," a group of young skateboarders from the rough area of Venice, California known as "Dogtown," who briefly came together in the 1970s as a cutting-edge skate team. Lords of Dogtown follows three of the characters in particular: Stacy Peralta (played by John Robinson), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), with the skate shop owner/dubious father figure Skip played quite well by Heath Ledger. The boys were already skateboarding to while away the time when the surf was poor, but with the advent of new urethane wheels that allowed more control and more spectacular handling of the boards, skateboarding rather than surfing became their passion. Bursting onto the skateboarding scene with urban bravado, the Z-Boys soon become sports celebrities... something that each of the boys handles in a different way.
One of the things that Lords of Dogtown does well is to capture the squalor of the boys' lives in Venice. Except for Stacy, who is mocked for being so "straight" as to actually have a job, most of the boys embrace a dead-end life that involves surfing, skating, and hanging around the Zephyr shop with the alcoholic Skip. The inner-city toughness of the boys gives them an edge when it comes to skateboarding - they are hungry and their skating shows it - but at the same time, they're curiously innocent of what it takes to survive in the wider world. With money and sponsorships comes attention from manipulative adult businessmen, as well as an introduction to drugs beyond the occasional joint. The film ends on a somewhat bittersweet note. For some of the Z-Boys, the Zephyr team was a step up and out of the ghetto, but for others, it was an all-too-brief moment of glory that slipped between their fingers.
Lords of Dogtown, like Dogtown and Z-Boys, was written by Stacy Peralta (and, of course, a younger Peralta is one of the characters in the film). On the one hand, that assures us of the fidelity of the film to the reality of the Z-Boys' experience, in tone even if not in the exact incidents that are shown on-screen; I wouldn't be surprised if the fairly dark undercurrent of Lords of Dogtown can be attributed to Peralta's experience holding its own against Hollywoodization. On the other hand, I think that Peralta is perhaps still too close to the material to really extract the maximum dramatic power from it. We can see this, I think, in the fact that Lords of Dogtown hews so closely to the storyline of Dogtown and Z-Boys. Having found one way to tell his story effectively, Peralta can't step back and think of a different (perhaps better) way to tell it again. I think there's also a slightly cartoonish feel to some of the characters here, as if Peralta felt slightly self-conscious about writing dialogue for himself and the friends of his youth, and as a result wasn't able to achieve a totally natural feel.
I'm not entirely sure who the audience is intended to be for this film. I'd think it was the audience of young skateboarders (or skateboarding enthusiasts), except that its 1970s setting probably makes it feel positively ancient for that group. Along the same lines, the skateboarding itself is not likely to wow viewers by itself: it was cutting-edge and daring in the 1970s, to be sure (and the film does a nice job of capturing that feel), but for viewers who've grown up with Tony Hawk and the X-Games, it's pretty tame. Given that the film follows the real stars of skateboarding's early days, it seems that it's aimed more at adults who grew up with these guys as their skateboarding heroes; the inclusion of several cameos by the original Z-Boys seems to hint at that. But for viewers in that category... why not just watch Dogtown and Z-Boys and get insight directly into the real thing, rather than seeing a reenactment? Lords of Dogtown is reasonably handled, but I think that it falls between two stools here in terms of attracting a coherent audience.
The extended cut
This DVD version of Lords of Dogtown has the "unrated extended cut," which runs about four minutes longer than the theatrical PG-13 cut. The changes are mainly small ones throughout the film, with more drug and sexual references; some of the dialogue that was re-dubbed at the MPAA's insistence is returned to its original form here. (For some reason, "vintage ass" was deemed acceptable, but "gray beaver" was too racy, for instance.) One additional scene, showing the "localism" that reigned at the pier, is also included. Given the gritty reality of the Z-Boys' lives, I'd say that in this case the unrated cut does a better job of capturing the right atmosphere of Dogtown, and in any case, if you're prudish about swearing and drug references to begin with, this just isn't the movie for you in the first place.
Lords of Dogtown appears in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The print is clean and looks good overall. It's a bit hard to judge the transfer quality here, since I think the filmmakers have gone for a deliberately slightly gritty look, which is appropriate to the feel of the film. The image is a bit grainy, with some noise, and a slightly oversaturated look. All in all, it's a satisfactory transfer that gets the tone of the story right.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does a good job of capturing the overall ambiance of the film. The music is balanced well with the rest of the track, with the volume handled correctly throughout the film, and the dialogue is always clear and crisp.
Lords of Dogtown comes with a quite respectable slate of special features, enough to make it worth checking out by serious fans of Dogtown and Z-Boys. First up are two audio commentary tracks: the first with director Catherine Hardwicke and actors John Robinson, Victor Rasuk, and Emile Hirsch, and the second with original Z-Boys Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta (who also wrote the script).
Next up is a promotional-style featurette on "The Making of Lords of Dogtown"; running 30 minutes, it offers a few interesting interview clips, but is mainly fluffy. What's much more interesting is the 30-minute section on "Dogtown Cameos." Here, Hardwicke introduces each segment by explaining how she got various original Z-Boys involved in the film, and each segment gives a short interview with the person involved along with a brief clip pointing out the cameo in the film itself. You can watch it with a "play all" feature, or choose specific cameos; it's probably the most interesting special feature on the disc. Another fairly substantial feature is the section of deleted and extended scenes, which gives us about 19 minutes of new or extended footage spread across nine different scenes. The last substantial special feature is a set of short featurettes that, taken together, runs about 20 minutes: we get pieces on various topics such as bails and spills, ratings-related choices, the skateboarding bulldog, the making of the Pacific Ocean Pier set, and so on.
The special features wrap up with some miscellaneous material: a three-minute gag reel, a set of storyboard comparisons, a music video of "Nervous Breakdown" by Rise Against, and a set of previews.
I'm not sure that there's all that much reason for Lords of Dogtown to exist, given the existence of the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys that it's directly based on. It's not badly done, and it was an entertaining experience, but its main effect was to make me want to watch Dogtown and Z-Boys again instead. Probably one of the most notable aspects of the film is the way it drew the original Z-Boys back (again) into another version of their lives; the special features on the DVD are particularly interesting in this regard, as we get to hear from the various Z-Boys who had cameos in the film, or who were involved in making it in some way. I gave the Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary a "recommended," but I think that Lords of Dogtown really only merits a mild "rent it" suggestion.