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‘Lords of Dogtown’ is a mindless thrill ride

A fictional look at the characters from ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys.’ By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Art imitates art imitating life in “Lords of Dogtown,” the fictionalized version of the award-winning documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” about the Southern California dudes who revolutionized skateboarding in the 1970s.

This may sound redundant. Or needless. Or self-congratulatory. It’s all of the above, as Stacy Peralta — one of the original Z-Boys, who directed and co-wrote the 2002 documentary — gets to relive his glory days once again. Not only did he write this script, as well, but he filled in as a last-minute stunt double when the young actor playing him (towheaded John Robinson from Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”) couldn’t quite pull off a trick.

One can only imagine what might come next: a dramatization of “Super Size Me,” in which an actor playing Morgan Spurlock eats at McDonald’s every day for a month, or perhaps a re-enactment of the re-enactments of the Michael Jackson trial, which air nightly on E!

In theory, the logic behind bringing the “Dogtown” story to the screen all over again is that people don’t go to the theater to see documentaries — unless it’s an election year, the documentary is about the president and the director is Michael Moore. (Despite receiving nearly universal critical acclaim, “Dogtown and Z-Boys” only made about $1.3 million at the box office.)

People do, however, go to the theater to see high-energy movies starring hot, young, shirtless stars; besides Robinson, the cast includes Heath Ledger, Emile Hirsch, Johnny Knoxville and Victor Rasuk from the indie hit “Raising Victor Vargas.”

In that regard, director Catherine Hardwicke delivers an irresistible summer spectacle, with dazzling camerawork and a driving soundtrack — similar to that of the documentary — which includes Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, David Bowie and Ted Nugent.

With help from cinematographer Elliot Davis, Hardwicke makes you feel like you’re riding right alongside the boys — zooming down steep hills and careening along the edges of empty swimming pools with gravity-defying grace. (The point-of-view shots from the skateboards’ urethane wheels are especially thrilling — or nauseating, depending on your tolerance for motion sickness.)

Hardwicke proves herself to be the perfect person to depict this intoxicating way of life. Not only does she live in Venice, Calif., where so much of the influential surfing and skating took place, but she’s also made her name as a filmmaker with a flair for gritty realism with “Thirteen,” an unflinching look at girls gone wild.

The Z-Boys’ low, smooth skating style and carefree looks turned them into rock stars and eventually brought some of them unexpected wealth and fame. But guerrilla skateboarding primarily served as escape and catharsis, and it provided them with an identity away from their broken homes and impoverished lives.

Peralta, Jay Adams (Hirsch) and Tony Alva (Rasuk) had skateboarding, surfing, each other and little else. Under the guidance of volatile surf shop owner and de facto father figure Skip Engblom (Ledger, channeling Val Kilmer in “The Doors”) they became a formal, unified team that astonished everyone at competitions up and down the coast.

The same talent that brought them together, though, eventually tore them apart as magazine articles and endorsements deals started falling into their laps. (Knoxville gets to play dress-up as a pimped-out promoter who sucks Alva into his flashy lifestyle and away from his hometown friends.)

Such material excess would seem antithetical to their skate-pirate philosophy. But don’t expect much character development to help you understand these people; they’re depicted as more interesting for what they do than who they are. Surprisingly, the real-life Peralta has turned his on-screen self into the most two-dimensional figure of them all. And “Thirteen” star Nikki Reed (as Alva’s sister) and Rebecca De Mornay (as Adams’ mother) are mere blips in this male-dominated world.

But if it’s a mindless thrill ride you’re after, this is it. Climb aboard and hang on.