Gridiron Gang (2006) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running Time: 120 min.
Cast: Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Jade Yorker, Xzibit, David V. Thomas, Setu Taase, L. Scott Caldwell, Leon Rippy, Kevin Dunn, Jurnee Smollett
Director: Phil Joanou
Screenplay: Jeff Maguire (based on the documentary, "Gridiron Gang", by Lee Stanley and Jac Flanders)
Review published September 20, 2006
Based on a true story, previously showcased in an Emmy-winning 1993 documentary of the same name, Gridiron Gang is the story of one detention camp probation officer's attempt to teach the young felons in his trust discipline, honor, teamwork, and pride through the game of football. Dwayne Johnson (Doom, Be Cool), aka The Rock, plays that officer, Sean Porter, who is sick to his stomach at having to release the kids in the camp out on the streets only to see them end up back in jail or dead. Many of the young men are gang members who can't seem to break out of the cycle of crime, so to turn the tide, Porter starts a gang of his own, the Kilpatrick Mustangs football team, showing that you can truly earn something and be a winner without the need to steal or kill for it.
While the main event of the film certainly did happen, as well as some of the scenes (some of them, excerpted from the documentary, are shown during the end credits), the film as a whole does tend to traverse familiar territory as far as feel-good sports films go, especially with the final game where all of the loose ends comfortably fall into place. However, perhaps due to there actually being documented footage to work from, there is sometimes a naturalistic flow and turn of events that make Gridiron Gang less manipulative than many to tread the same path. With solid performances all around, nicely packaged direction by Joanou (Entropy, Final Analysis), and a screenplay by Jeff Maguire (Timeline, In the Line of Fire) that respects the vernacular of the young men without seeming artificial, this is a respectable effort which should go down well for those that like sports films that are about a higher moral calling than just winning or losing games. Fans of The Rock should also be pleased, as he continues to impress with another performance that actually betters the material he is in.
I'll admit that going into Gridiron Gang, I was very skeptical that it would have anything to offer that I haven't seen before, but it surprised me, not because it did have anything unique, but that, for a formula film, it is competent, efficient, and until the final game, shows excellent restraint at not trying to overplay anything beyond what is necessary to move the plot along. At about 3/4 of the way through, I was ready to declare the film one of the best of this subgenre of films in recent years until it finally became everything it had been avoiding so well -- a pat, artificially rousing, cliché-ridden sports drama. Thankfully, it wasn't enough to ruin everything that came before, and the actual footage of the real-life events of the original documentary is a classy touch that does inspire by reminding us that there really are people out there that care enough to try to make a difference in our world, one person at a time.
Like many of the members of the actual Kilpatrick Mustangs, Gridiron Gang may be an underdog, but it has heart, which is sometimes just enough to overcome any obstacles threatening to do it in. As a film, it's more of a field goal than it is a touchdown, but at least it puts points on the board.
©2006 Vince Leo