The second football drama to be released in three weeks, "Gridiron Gang" surpasses the subdued expectations that came with the prospect of watching yet another formula sports picture. Oh, make no mistake, the film is formulaic, but it's not nearly the cookie-cutter affair that "Invincible
" was. Director Phil Joanou and screenwriter Jeff Maguire (2003's "Timeline
") lend their story a harsh and gritty realism that compliments its sporadic feel-good sentiments while lessening the blow of its schmaltzy climax.
At L.A.'s Camp Kilpatrick Juvenile Detention Center, dedicated counselor Sean Porter (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) has grown weary of watching the teenage inmates come and go, serving their time without learning anything and ending up either back in jail or dead. When Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker) is sentenced to Camp Kilpatrick after shooting to death his abusive stepfather, Sean recognizes the name and realizes he is the cousin of a recently killed gang member he once mentored. Desperate to make a difference in these wayward youths' lives, Sean convinces all the right people to let his young men join an area football league and start their own team. In doing so, the inmates, initially volunteering just to have something to do, actually get involved in the competitive nature of the sport, all the while putting their differences aside in order to work together as a team. As their game wins increase, so does their self-esteem, but Sean isn't so sure it's enough to save them from the crime and gangs they've grown up around.
"Gridiron Gang" bears a resemblance to 2005's wretchedly unfunny comedy, "The Longest Yard
," only with the premise taken seriously and the movie itself watchable. Director Phil Joanou strikes the right tone from the onset, unveiling the bleak actualities of inner-city gang activity and senseless violence without compromising the subject matter for the, albeit very hard, PG-13 rating. From there, the film hits a more familiar stride, with the troubled guys taking Sean up on his offer to join a self-made football team called the Mustangs, training for the impending season, sparring with each other, learning to get along, improving their game, and finally heading to the playoffs. If this sounds like a spoiler, it isn't; it's obvious from the start where "Gridiron Gang" is going, and the outcome throws a few unforeseen curveballs into the mix.
Besides, whether or not the Mustangs win or lose isn't all that important to director Joanou. Instead, his interest lies in following a group of teenage boys who have grown up in less than savory surroundings and are destined for a life of crime or a premature death if their eyes are not opened to the better possibilities for their futures. The football-playing sequences in "Gridiron Gang" are competently filmed, but it's been seen all before. Where the film excels is in the rest of the scenes in between the generic on-the-field stuff, as Sean Porter grows an affection for his charges and relates to them through his own experiences.
None of the characters are shaded in strict blacks and whites, but are multifaceted, complicated and flawed people who don't always do the right thing. This goes for Sean, as well, who is horrified to see himself turn into the harsh, overboard competitor that his late father was while coaching his team. As Sean contemplates letting go of the resentments he's had toward his dad for years, he also is forced to contemplate letting go of his loving mother Bobbi (L. Scott Caldwell), who is dying of cancer. By acting as, or at least putting an effort into being, the Mustangs' savior, Sean discovers a newfound purpose in his job and his own life.
As the hard but caring Sean, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson (2005's "Doom
") is serviceable. Physically, he's well cast, and he's got the authority figure routine down, but his trouble in expressing emotion on his face shines through in his more dramatic moments. As loyal assistant coach Malcolm Moore, Xzibit (2005's "Derailed
") shows charisma, if not range. And Trevor O'Brien (2004's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
"), as out-of-place inmate Kenny Bates, is notable for the touching work he does in a scene where his frustrations over the rocky relationship he shares with his mom boils over.
"Gridiron Gang" is not a new classic of the sports genre, nor does it reinvent the wheel. Running over two hours, a lot of fat could have been trimmed out of the middle to make the film leaner and less unwieldy, and the "big game" finale is a bit of a snooze until the fourth quarter's crucial make-or-break last play. Nevertheless, there is a maturity in its treatment of stock themes and a few positive messages, including the value of learning to respect others, and the notion that even the most downtrodden of human beings have the ability to break the chain of violence and make something of themselves. There is also an effective third-act scene that bypasses the usual route of a coach-to-team half-time pep talk where Sean trusts the team to evaluate their own playing and psyche themselves up. It's their game to win or lose, after all, and Sean has grown enough as a person to understand this. Moments like this one in "Gridiron Gang" point to a film aspiring to be more honest and substantive than the average mainstream sports flick. Not necessarily more original, but certainly more worth the viewer's while. It does help, however, to be a football fan.