Directed By: Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Heath Ledger, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk
Tag line: "Based on the True Story of the Legendary Z-Boys"
Trivia: To prepare for his role as young Jay Adams, Emile Hirsch flew to Hawaii to spend time with Jay Adams who had just been released from jail for assault and drug charges and had just gotten married
Former skateboard legend turned filmmaker Stacey Peralta wowed audiences with his 2001 documentary, Dogtown and Z Boys, a movie that chronicled the skate culture of the 1970s as influenced by the tiny California neighborhood known as Dogtown. Based on a script written by Peralta, Lords of Dogtown is a dramatization of these same events, spinning a story about a group of kids who turned their passion for skating into a worldwide phenomenon.
It’s the mid-1970s, and a revolution is about to take place in Ocean Park, an area of Santa Monica the locals call Dogtown. Soon, this impoverished beachside community, known for its prime surfing spots, will become the focal point of a sport that will take the world by storm: skateboarding! With wheels made of polyurethane, which allows boards to “grip” the streets, skaters are suddenly able to do tricks that, previously, could only be performed on a surfboard. Looking to cash in, Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger), who owns the Zephyr Surf Shop, recruits a group of local kids, including Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), and (eventually) Stacey Peralta (John Robinson), and forms a skate team, which he names the “Z Boys”. With both their talent and a “win-at-all-costs” attitude, the Z Boys go on to become national, and, before long, international celebrities. But as their popularity grows, so does the likelihood they’ll be lured away from the team by million-dollar sporting goods companies, who promise to make them rich beyond their wildest dreams.
Where Dogtown and Z Boys gave us the “meat and bones” of the story, Lords of Dogtown delves a little deeper into the personalities behind it. Emile Hirsch is excellent as Jay Adams, arguably the most talented of the Z Boys, who looks at professional skating as a way to help out his single mother (Rebecca De Mornay). Victor Rasuk’s Tony Alva is a cocky, determined kid who wants to win so he can impress his father (Julio Oscar Mechoso). All of the young actors in Lords of Dogtown are effective, but the best performance is delivered by Heath Ledger, whose Skip Engblom is a spaced-out opportunist who stumbles upon a good thing, then fights like hell to keep it together. Those who saw the interviews with the real-life Engblom in Dogtown and Z Boys will be impressed with how well Ledger duplicates his distinctive speaking voice, yet what’s truly remarkable is how he also adds enough depth to the character to make him totally believable (a late scene, where he’s walking through the burned-out remains of a pier that once meant the world to him, is both poignant and moving). In lesser hands, Skip Engblom might have become little more than a throwaway, an over-the-top bit of comic relief. Thanks to Ledger, he’s anything but.
Lords of Dogtown does stagger some in its final act; the scenes that show the Z Boys at the pinnacle of their popularity, competing in tournaments all over the world, feel rushed, and never provide a true sense of just how famous these kids became. This aside, Lords of Dogtown is a good companion piece to Dogtown and Z Boys, and, more importantly, offers audiences yet another opportunity to watch the late Heath Ledger light up the screen.