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    Gridiron Gang (2006) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | September 16, 2006


    Like a Rock: Dwayne Johnson inspires juvenile delinquents to disciplined excellence in "Gridiron Gang"

    Like a Rock: Dwayne Johnson inspires juvenile delinquents to disciplined excellence in "Gridiron Gang"

    “The Rock” of Gibraltar

    Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

    Gridiron Gang. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Xzibit, L. Scott Caldwell, Leon Rippy, Kevin Dunn, Jade Yorker, David V. Thomas, Setu Taase, Mo, and, James Earl. Screenplay by Jeff Maguire. Based on the television documentary “Gridiron Gang,” by Jac Flanders. Directed by Phil Joanou. (Columbia Pictures/Original Film, 2006, Color, 120 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13)

    Who really wants to see another feel-good movie about a tough educator who takes on both the most violent juvenile delinquents and “the system,” raising them from the abyss of failure and imprisonment to success they wouldn’t even have dared dream of only months before? Do we really need another formulaic sports flick, “based on a true story,” about a coach taking his rag-tag team of underdogs all the way to the city championship?

    You bet we do!

    In what’s being touted as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s dramatic debut, Gridiron Gang showcases the former professional wrestler’s physical prowess and emerging acting chops as tough-as-nails juvenile detention officer Sean Porter. Frustrated by the seventy-five per-cent recidivism rate of the teenage felons in his charge, Porter sees that the vicious circle of violence, gang activity and growing up without fathers has doomed them to wasted lives lived behind bars. Porter keeps sending one troubled kid in particular, Roger (Michael J. Pagan), to the hole for punishment.

    “Where’re you gonna be in four years?” Porter grills him.

    “In jail,” the recalcitrant youth answers, sulkingly.

    “No! You’re going to be dead!”

    Sure enough, a week later, on release, even though he’s trying to go straight, Roger is gunned down in a drive-by shooting while hanging out with his old gang members. A week later, Roger’s brother Willie (Jade Yorker) winds up at the same juvenile reformatory, Camp Kilpatrick in Los Angeles County, when he guns down his mother’s abusive live-in boyfriend.

    One night, driving home from work, Porter spots a group of kids playing football under the lights and gets a dose of inspiration: As a last-ditch effort to try to turn around the presumably unsalvageable lives of Camp Kilpatrick’s murderers, rapists and carjackers, Porter launches a football program.

    Seeking to replace the dangerous and self-destructive gang lifestyle with something constructive and positive, Porter cajoles many of Camp Kilpatrick’s self-described toughest youths to belong to the Mustang team, where nobody gets a free ride, and membership has to be earned. Attempting to convince the skeptical administration to fund his team, Porter reminds them, “these kids have never worked hard for anything in their lives.” Once his kids amble onto the practice field, they learn that being tough is more than bullying and posturing, but requires discipline, commitment, and self-restraint.

    What impressed me most were the sequences in which Porter builds up the team, drilling them through tough workouts and scrimmages, testing their endurance, and, for the first time in their lives, forging their characters. As with Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in the 1938 classic Boy’s Town, Porter operates on the premise that his boys are not inherently bad. “You are somebody,” he tells them, “and are worthy of something.” But attempts to inspire his team go beyond mere pep talks; Porter instills in them the lesson that true self-esteem can only be gained through achievement, not merely by building up their egos with false praise. “It’s a whole new world out there when you earn things,” he reminds them.

    Of course, with Coach Porter being the first man in their lives to believe in and be a father figure to them, fills them with a lot of false expectations when they arrive to their first game. Despite a couple good tackles early on, the Mustangs get a rude awakening once their opponents gather steam. After getting stomped for a 38-0 loss, not only do many on the team start questioning whether the football program is worth it, but so do some of the administration members at Camp Kilpatrick.

    “We wanted to create self-esteem, but it was just the opposite,” one of them says to Porter, lamentingly. “These kids can’t handle that kind of disappointment. We have to pull the plug.”

    But just as everyone is willing to throw in the towel, Porter finds that one of his players, Junior (Setu Taase), learned that self-esteem is more than immediate gratification, but requires diligent effort, even in the face of crushing defeat. Junior convinces the team why they must not give up, because they’ve already failed at everything else in life. “It’s like I told you, Coach,” he informs Porter, “we’re tired of being losers.”

    The plot culminates with the Mustangs improving their playing, and fighting their way to the playoffs. While the action on field is shot a little too claustrophobically by using telephoto lenses, the movie as a whole doesn’t suffer much. Trevor Rabin (of Yes fame) provides an emotionally rousing soundtrack that carries the film nicely. The Rock really holds this movie together with a strong performance as Coach Porter. As a former University of Miami football standout, he brings credibility and conviction to his role. While he’s come a long way from his “Layeth the Smacketh Down” WWF days, The Rock’s not exactly as accomplished and subtle an actor like, say, Johnny Depp. But, the kids in this movie don’t need understatement and nuance—they need sturdy and straightforward. Think Lee Marvin’s Major Reisman from The Dirty Dozen crossed with Glenn Ford’s Mr. Dadier in Blackboard Jungle.

    In the genre of tough educators who turns around troubled inner-city youths lives, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Morgan Freeman’s breakthrough performance in Lean On Me (1989) or Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love (1967). Neither does it quite belong in the same league with other great sports flicks about underdog teams who go all the way to the top, like Hoosiers (1986) or Friday Night Lights (2004). But, as a movie which straddles both genres, it really gels, and will lift the spirits of most viewers.

    Sure, Gridiron Gang is a formulaic film. But what makes Gridiron Gang such an enjoyable and moving watch is the example of  how just one man, Sean Porter, was able to turn around the recidivism rate at Camp Kilpatrick by instilling his players with pride and faith in themselves, that they are not born criminals, but possess the free will to make productive lives for themselves. No excuses self-esteem requires a formula, too, and Gridiron Gang shows how it’s done.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Biopics, Dramas, Movie Reviews, Sports Movies | No Comments »