Backfield in Motion
Seeing Gridiron Gang came at the end of a week during which I thought I had my fill of sports movies for the decade. Not only had I sat through two soccer stories (The Miracle Match and Goal! The Dream Begins), but even the family film I caught, Everyone's Hero, stayed close to the genre. After being assaulted with almost every movie sports cliche in the book, I was ready to count out Gridiron Gang. But color me surprised to find that while the film remains flawed, it manages to buck at least some of the more tired chestnuts of the sports genre, emerging as a fairly decent and, in a way, inspirational drama.
Drawing its story from true events, Gridiron Gang is set at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. This is where tough but good-hearted counselor Sean Porter (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) works and tries with all his might to keep the kids under his supervision on the right track -- though judging from how 75% of the kids released end up either dead or in prison, his efforts may be in vain. But all of this may change for the better when Sean devises a new program to help his boys clean up their acts: the formation of a football team.
Sean's superiors are quick to scoff at his idea, but he reluctantly wins them over after preaching the program's benefits of improving discipline, respecting authority, and learning to abandon personal prejudices in order to work together as a collective. It's gonna be a long shot, with such players as a teen (Jade Yorker) who killed his mom's abusive boyfriend and a particularly hot-headed young man (Setu Taase) on the squad, but fueled by his desire to put the kids on the path towards a better life for all of them, Sean puts his all into proving that his boys have the spirit to overcome their adversities and make the program work.
A little more attention paid to atmosphere ends up going a long way for Gridiron Gang. Whereas a good chunk of sports flicks are content with the "rubber stamp" approach to establishing a setting ("Everytown, U.S.A."), the most striking thing about Gridiron Gang is that director Phil Joanou (U2: Rattle and Hum) takes the time to build up intensity surrounding the characters. The film's opening scenes follow a kid who's released from the detention center, only to wind up dead on the streets while his friend appears to take his place back in juvie.
Joanou does a surprisingly solid job of maintaining an aura of fighting for survival, of violence only begetting more violence and rendering the efforts of those trying to make a difference altogether moot. That this aspect of the story holds up so well amid the more well-worn elements that automatically come with the genre (the tough but well-meaning leader, the higher-ups who think his program won't work, the brooding players, etc.) provides a big boost to Gridiron Gang's dramatic strength, giving the film a more earnest quality beyond just being a highly-familiar, studio-churned effort to rake in more cash.
Also working in favor of Gridiron Gang is The Rock's stern lead performance. Despite a couple of missteps (Doom immediately comes to mind), The Rock has a much stronger screen presence than most give him credit for (you gotta admit, he was the best part about the otherwise wan Be Cool), and he uses that to his advantage here as a counselor who has seen tragedy befall boys once in his care -- and, while realizing he's not going to get through to everyone, wants to make as big a difference as he can in order to prevent history from repeating itself.
Sean cares a lot for the guys on his team, but he's not afraid to be upfront with them and let them know just how dire their situation is, that there's a good chance they will die if they don't straighten up and fly right. This is definitely a character The Rock slips into and performs quite well.
Despite how surprisingly good The Rock is, many of the supporting players don't measure up as well. Rapper/actor Xzibit (last heard voicing a bear in Hoodwinked), playing Sean's colleague and assistant coach, doesn't get much screen time to stretch his stuff. The superiors are characters you've seen in a gazillion different movies, and aside from a tiny handful of kids who get their own fleshed-out but cliche-ridden subplots, the members of the team all seem to blend together, making the story a little less personal. Also, after the first hour, the film's structure gets a little wonky, eventually arriving at a point where I thought the movie was gonna end on a solid note, but it went on for another half-hour that seemed like eons.
Gridiron Gang gets off to a strong start but ends up petering out. It falls victim to the natural detriments that come with being a sports-oriented film. Still, that's no reason to give up the ship, since at least some effort is better than none, especially when what does work in this movie works so well.
MY RATING: ** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language.)