Back in 2001, Stacey Peralta made the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys about how skateboarding had evolved into its own sport and how he and others came to be part of a professional team during the 1970s whose influence is still felt today. A few years later the biographical film Lords of Dogtown followed, written by Peralta and directed by Catherine Hardwicke (then following up her teen-shocker debut Thirteen and who would later direct the first Twilight film).
Upon its release Lords of Dogtown was considered something of a failure, many people preferring the documentary. As often happens of course, in the time since it has built quite a cult following. This seems to be mainly due to two things: the film’s place in skateboarding culture and the performance by Heath Ledger. So, after over a decade since it first came out, and with some distance from the documentary, do we have an opportunity now to rediscover a lost classic?
Sadly, no. Having said that, there’s many positives throughout. Ledger was undoubtedly a gifted actor (as well as a movie star) and his mercurial, melancholy performance as Skip lifts the film whenever he’s on screen. The main trio of skaters the film focuses on, Victor Rasuk as Tony Alva, Emile Hirsch as Jay Adams, and John Robinson as Peralta himself are convincing as the young men at the forefront of the next big step in the sport. They’re surrounded by an impressive cast made up of character players and famous faces like Johnny Knoxville.
Hardwicke directs the film with a real vigour. Carrying over a documentary feel to the skating set-pieces it really helps to try and understand the adrenalin these skaters got from each new discovery and development. There’s a good sense of time and place, most likely thanks to Peralta's influence, and as their little subculture starts to become something big, the surreality of advertisers and money men intruding is communicated well.
Still, it’s a biographical sport film and despite the filmmaking creativity on show it’s ruthlessly slavish to that template. Things go well for the trio in different ways, they get bigger, they grow apart but still come back together at least one more time. There are little surprises in the way it gets there. Dogtown is well made and populated by good performances, but there’s nothing massively compelling about it. The pace fluctuates, and it just doesn't hang together particularly well or draw you in beyond the surface deeper into the characters or what drives them.
Due to this it’s really about how much you’re into skateboarding or the history of the sport as to how much you’re likely to enjoy it. Overall, despite the many good points, we didn’t find it especially interesting in its own right as a film. But if you are a fan of skating, that interest is probably ramped up, so expect to add another point or maybe two to our rating.
LORDS OF DOGTOWN / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: CATHERINE HARDWICKE / SCREENPLAY: STACY PERALTA / STARRING: HEATH LEDGER, EMILE HIRSCH, JOHN ROBINSON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW