Catherine Hardwicke's Lords of Dogtown tells virtually the same story recounted by Stacy Peralta's 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, which autobiographically detailed his and his friends' teen years as pioneers of modern skateboard culture. Peralta, along with buddies Tony Alva and Jay Adams, were hardcore surfers from the grimy "Dogtown" of Venice, California, and with the help of some cutting-edge urethane wheels and legendary surfboard sculptor Skip Engblom - whose Zephyr store financed their original skate team, and bestowed them with the nickname "Z-Boys" - the brash trio became overnight icons for a new asphalt-grinding youth movement that championed experimentation and insolence in equal measures. Their rags-to-riches story is one in which triumph was achieved from go-for-broke rebelliousness, and thus stands as the complementary flip-side to Hardwicke's girls-gone-wild Thirteen, which illustrated the audacious and often-injurious lengths to which kids will go for attention, popularity and defiant thrills.
During the height of California's suffocating drought in the mid-1970s, quiet, long-haired Peralta (Elephant's John Robinson), cocky Alva (Raising Victor Vargas' Victor Rasuk), and self-destructive Adams (Emile Hirsch) began transferring their ocean-skimming techniques to the city's blacktop and empty swimming pools, resulting in an almost instantaneous phenomenon that thrust them onto the covers of magazines, into lucrative endorsement contracts, and onto the set of Charlie's Angels. Hardwicke's film (written by Peralta) presents this real-life tale with a mixture of exuberance and cautionary wariness, depicting the benefits (sex, money, fame) and pitfalls (jealousy, clashes over girls, obligations to their less-than-supportive parents) of these adolescents' sudden rise to superstardom. Thanks to Elliot Davis' bleached-out, nostalgically hazy cinematography (which mirrors the pulverizing propulsion of street skating by twirling, spinning and sticking low to the ground) and liberal use of thunderous '70s tunes by Hendrix and Sabbath, Hardwicke's period piece has a groovy, hard-charging dynamism. And as in her last film, the director - via Peralta and Adams' rivalry over Alva's sister Kathy (Nikki Reed) and Adams' difficulties at home with his irresponsible mom (Rebecca De Mornay) - laces such heady, sun-dappled optimism with an undercurrent of looming menace.
Lords of Dogtown is so eager to celebrate these kids as trailblazers that it doesn't quite know how to handle Adams, an uncontrollable wild child who only briefly followed his friends into the professional arena before falling back into a life of gangs, drugs, and crime. The film wants to share in Peralta and Alva's euphoria over hitting the jackpot while simultaneously portraying their transformation into pros - and their consequent decision to abandon the selfish, manipulative Engblom (Heath Ledger) - as a betrayal of the rebellious, street-bred spirit that first motivated them to skate and to which Adams remained firmly committed. And in fairness to this viewpoint, Alva and Peralta's costume-heavy competitive performances alongside skating bulldogs aren't exactly hardcore. Yet the script, by trying to elicit sympathy for Adams' disgust of corporate-sponsored skating and preference for "keeping it real" as a thug, thus refuses to completely cast the gifted athlete as a figure of wasted potential. And the film's attempt to render Peralta and Alva's success as a double-edged sword - mainly because they were forced into dealings with corrupt, money-hungry managers like Johnny Knoxville's Topper Burks - doesn't really jibe with the long, profitable, and rewarding careers that Alva and Peralta continue to enjoy today.
Still, if Lords of Dogtown's third act strains to create dramatic tension from the Z-Boys' decision to be co-opted by corporate America - and becomes a bit mushy courtesy of a health crisis subplot involving their friend Sid (Michael Angarano) - the film's shortcomings are overshadowed by its unaffectedly rowdy cast. Rasuk's brazen machismo and rock-star charisma is nicely counterbalanced by the reserved confidence of Robinson's sensitive Peralta, and Hirsch's portrait of the out-of-control Adams, though occasionally lapsing into tough guy mannerisms, gives the high velocity proceedings a manic energy. Ledger - speaking as if his upper lip were glued open and staggering about the frame with blustery rudeness - goes slightly overboard as the larger-than-life Engblom, and his scenery-chomping antics lend an air of unreality to this otherwise grittily credible film. Yet like the rambunctious characters that surround him, Ledger's excessive Engblom also exudes an impetuousness that's in keeping with Lords of Dogtown's infectious, devil-may-care swagger.
The "unrated" DVD doesn't seem particularly rougher than the original PG-13 cut, but four minutes of extra footage can be found on the disc anyway. Gag reel, deleted scenes, two commentary tracks, and tons of behind-the-scenes tracks round out a skate-filled disc.
Dogs don't know it's not bacon.