Go out there and win one for The Rock!
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Phil Joanou
Cast: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Xzibit
Why is it films are always “based on the inspiring true story”? How come you never see “based on the disheartening true story” or “based on the totally depressing true story”? ... OK, so maybe it’s more of a rhetorical question. The point is simply that Hollywood loves inspirational, real-life stories. Any time a poor kid wins a national spelling bee or a tiny school wins a basketball championship, you can guarantee there will soon be a heartwarming movie made about it.
So, in a way, The Gridiron Gang is sort of inevitable. The story’s life began in 1993, when Jac Flanders and Lee Stanley created a TV documentary called Gridiron Gang. The film, which nabbed itself an Emmy, told the story of a Southern California juvenile detention camp filled to bursting with Los Angeles gang members. Though all were under the age of 18, many were locked up for crimes as serious as murder. With a recidivism rate as high as 80 percent, camp directors took it upon themselves to come up with a radical new program. They created a football team, which pitted the kids against students from other “straight” high schools in the area. Suddenly, those old gang affiliations started to melt away.
Using Flanders and Stanley’s documentary as a starting line, the newly fictionalized Gridiron Gang casts wrestlin’ thespian The Rock as Sean Porter, a counselor at a juvenile detention center who comes up with the controversial plan to teach gangbangers football. A failed college player himself, Porter carries around just the right amount of backstory to sell this feel-good flick. In short order, he’s bucking the establishment, teaching teens the sort of manly camaraderie seen only in sports and World War II movies, and cleaning out his own closet full of emotional baggage.
It will come as no surprise to most viewers that Gridiron Gang follows the “inspirational sports movie” playbook to a T. We’ve got our driven but emotionally wounded coach. We’ve got our ragtag team of losers. We’ve got our colorful cast of players, most of whom will get their own tiny snippets of story as the film progresses. And, of course, we’ve got our big, stand-up-and-cheer final showdown between the come-from-behind underdogs and the well-polished-but-ultimately-hateful champions.
Despite the fact that most of its plays are easily telegraphed audibles, Gridiron Gang plugs toward the goal line with efficiency, professionalism and crowd-pleasing likability. Although there are plenty of humorous character moments, the script doesn’t shy away from the grim statistics that surround its characters. There’s some solid drama to surround the rah-rah speeches. (Although, The Rock’s cancer-stricken mama seems like one tearjerk too many.) Director Phil Joanou (still best known as the visual stylist of U2: Rattle and Hum) jazzes things up with his energetic camera style, which tries to but can’t quite match the on-the-field mise-en-scène of Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday.
It’s always a little scary to see a film’s cast littered with people who have no real names. Despite the fact that The Rock and Xzibit are headlining things here, the acting is solid. I’m not saying The Rock is Sir Laurence Olivier or anything, but he’s got charisma. It’s nice to finally see him in a production he actually believes in after all those grimace-and-pull-the-trigger roles. A college back injury actually robbed The Rock of a chance to play in the NFL, so it’s safe to say he was custom-made for this role. His enthusiasm and rough-edged charm make it easy to believe these hard-knock kids could absorb a bit of self-respect and responsibility under his musclebound wing.
Inspirational movies (and inspirational sports movies for that matter) are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. But Gridiron Gang does it right. It feels good. It feels real. It feels like a winner.
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