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Lords of Dogtown

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A sports biopic for the counterculture that doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Image of Lords of Dogtown

Catherine Hardwicke/USA/ 2005/ 107 minutes

On Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) now.

Ever watched someone balance on a wee sliver of wood and wheels and hurl themselves down a vertical slope at breakneck speeds and wonder how on earth did that became a thing? Well, three contributing factors; pools across Los Angeles being emptied due to a statewide drought, the development of polyurethane skateboard wheels, and a group of young surfers from LA’s Venice Beach who figured that combining those first two things might be kinda rad.

Lords of Dogtown recounts the rise of the Zephyr Competition Team, in particular its three star members Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) and Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), from bored surfer kids to skateboarding’s first true legends. Formed in the mid-1970s by surf shop owner Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger), the ‘Z-Boys’ brought their aggressive surfing style onto land, reshaping skateboarding into the extreme sport it’s known as today.

On the surface, Lords of Dogtown is a sports biopic, albeit one for the counterculture (the cliched training montage becomes a riotous sequence where the Z-Boys sneak into the gardens of the prosperous to skate their emptied-out pools). At it’s heart it’s a personal story of a group of friends brought together by a shared passion and subsequently torn apart by the pressures of the success. It’s here that the film is most successful; the young ensemble is convincing as group of close friends and, later, rivals once fame and fortune take their toll.

It’s a shame then that the cast is often having to struggle against a clumsy script keen to paint the group as lovable rogues but overlooking the ‘lovable’ part. It’s initially difficult to connect with the characters, leaving what could otherwise be intense or moving scenes falling somewhat flat.

Inventive surfing and skating cinematography results in some thrilling sequences that are a joy to watch though. The lo-fi camerawork works well with the mid-70s setting, and barring one or two minor anachronisms (a Black Flag t-shirt in 1976..?), Catherine Hardwicke’s direction and a standout soundtrack help carve out a convincing place and time.

The Z-Boys ascent to fame, and their lasting impact on skateboarding, is an interesting story that deserves telling. It’s arguably been better told before, however, in 2001’s Dogtown and Z-Boys, the documentary that preceded the drama. As entertaining, even thrilling at times,  as Lords of Dogtown is, it’s hampered by inconsistent writing and adds little to a tale already told.