“Lords of Dogtown” is not the best film Stacy Peralta has written or directed about the pioneering skateboarders from the famous Zephyr skateboard team in the 1970s.
His 2001 auto-biographic doc “Dogtown and Z-Boys” is an excellent education in the story, but “Lords” is its adaptation for the big screen.
“Lords” tracks the meteoric rise of Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Peralta onto covers of Skateboarding magazine, sponsor deals and ridiculous riches, then paints a picture of a sobering fall that never really happened — pay attention to the epilogue, at the end, for details.
Peralta lightly salts this script, digested and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, with thrilling anecdotes but stumbles sometimes when he runs into an opportunity to dive deep into a character. Victor Rasuk’s Tony Alva is an excellent example of opportunity lost.
Alva is a challenge. He’s the one of the three whose ego takes on a life of its own when he starts to get everything he wants. “Looks like it’s between you and me, Tony,” Peralta says during a competition. “No, it’s just me,” Alva answers.
Emile Hirsch’s Jay Adams describes him best: “He’s competing with the sun for the center of the universe.”
He has the jump suits, image and limos to measure his confidence, and sometimes a cocky character can be hard to connect with emotionally. But Peralta opens at least two doors for himself.
After the Zephyr team enters its first competition, and Tony’s in line to win until he gets disqualified, we catch a shaken Alva who tells his sister, “I just wanted Dad to see the stupid trophy.”
Later in the film, after getting punched back to reality during a competition fist-fight, Alva’s caught wearing an eye patch at his home. His sponsor Topper Burks (played by Johnny Knoxville) arrives in a limo to whisk him away. But Tony’s tentative, almost child-like, appearing suddenly nervous around the people who made him rich. He’s following doctor’s orders, staying home, and later tries riding a skateboard unsuccessfully — his frustration running like a tear down his face. There, his dad comes to offer a pep talk.
These moments make for an entirely different emotional response to the Z-Boys’ loudest, proudest member. Without them, Alva is a one-sided character. It seems “Lords” wouldn’t be complete without seeing some emotion from Alva as he shows in those sequences. They’re some of the most important scenes in the film.
Peralta gave himself the short end of the stick. His character (played by John Robinson) is flat and, as Adams describes him, “looks like a stock car.”
Adams’ character, on the other hand, is beautifully jaded. Peralta flushes out so much of Jay’s story, and Hirsch’s performance is top-billing for the film. If you’ll watch Peralta’s 2001 documentary, you’ll learn that the Z-Boys, even Alva, considered Adams the most talented, and that comes across well in “Lords.” See the scene where he hand-plants in competition, and the other where he bridges a gap on a construction site.
Of all the people, Adams was the one that the skateboarding world never came together for. The pieces never fell into place as they should’ve. His sponsors never made his signature board. He turned down a mainstream commercial opportunity. He was the embattled skateboarder who was most hampered by the Z-Boys going their separate ways.
“Lords” is undoubtedly a film about these three pioneers, but is also a terrific stage for Heath Ledger as Skip, the Zephyr surf shop owner and skateboarding innovator. The film ought to be more discussed when we reflect on Ledger’s shortened career nowadays.
He’s a drunk shop owner doing all of this for fun, not for money. He puts the skate team together because he cares about the kids and wants to see them be successful, but Skip is the one who gets the short end of it all. He rightfully should’ve made so much more money by founding the team, but the Z-Boys left him in the dust. Even so, Ledger’s scenes are the strongest and most memorable. He’s almost too strong of a personality for the film, which doesn’t really get a whole lot from two of its three male leads…
Hirsch being the exception.
“Lords of Dogtown”: ★★★