To most people, the names mean nothing. But to skateboarders – and skateboarding fans – Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta and Jay Adams are something close to deities.

They were all part of a group of scrappy punks from a rundown beach community in 1970s California who came up with the idea of applying surfing techniques to skateboarding – and wound up leaving a deep and permanent mark on American pop culture. Even if you couldn’t care less about the sport, their story is rich, compelling stuff, and it was ably told in the outstanding 2001 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” which Peralta directed himself.

Now comes “Lords of Dogtown,” a fictional retelling of the story based on a screenplay by Peralta and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who takes the same steely, unsentimental approach she used in her 2003 teenage-girls-in-trouble debut, “Thirteen.” The movie has its share of pleasures, including its fine period details, inventive skateboard-cam footage and Elliot Davis’ sun-kissed, bleached-out cinematography.

But too much of “Lords of Dogtown” still feels conventional and sugar-coated, a story about raucous R-rated kids trapped in the confines of a PG-13 movie. Unlike the documentary, the movie is reluctant to delve too deeply into the darker side of its protagonists – hedonistic, nothing-to-lose teens whose economically depressed environment and shaky home lives begat the defiant, rebellious attitude that drove their skateboarding antics (and is now an intrinsic element of every variety of the extreme sports arena).

The actors – including Victor Rasuk, John Robinson and Emile Hirsch, all of whom became able skateboarders for the film – do what they can, but they’re playing characters who have been whittled down to one-dimensional types (the arrogant star, the straight arrow, the brooding rebel) in order to accommodate the requisite economy and linear structure of a fictional story line.

The best performance comes from an unrecognizable Heath Ledger as Skip Engblom, the co-owner of a Venice Beach surf shop who was the first to spot the potential in these kids, armed them with skateboards outfitted with urethane wheels, and set them loose on the competitive circuit, where they immediately caused a ruckus heard round the skateboarding world. Alcoholic and self-destructive, Engblom was part Svengali figure, part paternal guardian to this gang of lost boys, and the character’s duality is far more complex – and infinitely more intriguing – than the pat dynamics between the kids.

“Lords of Dogtown” also condemns the appropriation of the sport by big-bucks sponsors eager to capitalize on the teens’ growing fame. But that romanticized melancholy is at odds with the point of the story: If Alva and company hadn’t “sold out” and made profitable careers out of their talent, we wouldn’t be watching a movie about them today. For all its honorable intentions, “Lords of Dogtown” once again proves that fiction can’t hope to compete with real life.


2 stars

Rated PG-13

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, John Robinson, Michael Angarano, Nikki Reed, Heath Ledger, Rebecca de Mornay, Johnny Knoxville.

Director: Catherine Hardwicke.

Producer: John Linson.

Screenwriters: Stacy Peralta.

A TriStar Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes.

(c) 2005, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-06-02-05 1752EDT

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