Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson actually shows off some fairly decent acting chops in Gridiron Gang, a cliché-ridden, almost inspiring but ultimately facile entry into the high-school football movie genre. Yes, there actually have been enough films about teens smacking the crap out of each other on the gridiron to qualify them as their own genre. And despite good intentions—it’s based on some real life events—this one ain’t no Friday Night Lights.
Johnson plays Sean Porter, a counselor at a youth prison filled with gang members, thieves and a couple of killers to boot. The kids, not surprisingly, are at each other’s throats within the confines of their small barracks, so Porter hatches a plan to get them out into fresh air and play some football.
All sorts of obstacles stand in his way. The kids are of high-school age, so in order to play some ball, Porter will have to convince other high schools to put their teams on the field with them, and that seems risky for most coaches. Inevitably—because there wouldn’t be a movie if they didn’t—some teams find a way to make it happen, and the bad kids get a chance to make good by scoring touchdowns and kicking the unholy shit out of each other.
Some of the incarcerated boys are from rival gangs, so they scowl at each other and score some dirty hits. Others have major mommy issues, as does Porter, whose mom is in the hospital fighting for life. It all has a nice spirit about it, but the presentation and dialogue make it all pretty hokey.
As for the football action, like the recent Invincible, the movie does a nice job with the bone-crunching hits. The play is sloppy enough to make it feel like real high school sports as opposed to the cinematic fantasyland, where a 17-year-old throws a perfect spiral every time. The actors, a cast of relative unknowns, are all given moments to shine, and some actually transcend the goopy script.
I was sitting on the fence with Gridiron Gang, undecided as to where I was going to come down with my opinion. Then The Rock got dressed in a skimpy football uniform so he could go toe-to-toe with one of his players lacking confidence. Maybe this happened in real life, but I’m telling you, it’s laugh-out-loud funny in this movie, and that’s not a good thing.
From that moment on, any sense of credibility gets lost. Everything goes perfectly for these kids by finale time. The bad stuff that happens to some of them is revealed in a Rock voice-over during a victory montage.
If you’re going to make a real film about real gang members trying to play football and get along, it’s going to be a little uglier than this one. The movie’s super-clean sheen feels a bit dishonest.
The film is directed by Phil Joanou. He’s the stylish guy who was supposed to be the next big thing when he helmed U2: Rattle and Hum, which put the world to sleep (except for me. I’m a diehard U2 fan, and I loved that flick, even with Bono pontificating over his stupid “When Love Comes to Town” lyrics). This is probably his best work since then, but it still isn’t quite up to snuff. His film is visually strong but lacks emotional depth.
The end credits show some of the people who inspired the story and some actual footage of the real boys on the field. (The Rock delivers a speech that is almost word-for-word what his character’s real life counterpart says in the footage). Personally, I would rather have watched a full documentary on the real kids than this hackneyed contraption.