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Gridiron Gang

The Rock is Back

Former-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is back on screen, this time setting aside action heroics for the wise mentor role, a football coach, in Phil Joanou's (Final Analysis, State of Grace) return to feature-length filmmaking, the "based on a true story" Gridiron Gang.

Sean Porter (Johnson), a senior counselor at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles County, hopes to find something, anything that can help the teenagers under his charge escape adult prison or premature, violent death. Most of the detention center’s teenagers come from rough, poverty-stricken areas. Many, if not most, are gangbangers. All looks bleak until Porter, a former footballer, hits on the idea of putting together a high school-level football team drawn from Camp Kilpatrick’s teenagers. With the support of another counselor, Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), he takes his plan to his superiors, Paul Hira (Leon Drippy) and Ted Dexter (Kevin Dunn), who immediately express reservations about Porter’s plan, especially since Porter wants the football team to play a full schedule against local high school teams.

Porter has just four weeks to whip his new recruits into shape. To succeed, he needs star players. Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker) has the potential to become a great running back, but he has to overcome a violent, traumatic past, the presence of rival gangbangers at the detention center, and his own self-doubts. Porter fills out his team with Leon Hayes (Mo), a quarterback, Junior Palatial (Setup Taase), a fullback, and Kenny Bates (Trever O'Brien), a wide receiver/defensive back. Porter also has to deal with his mother’s terminal illness just as the center’s football team, now dubbed the Mustangs, begins to succeed (after multiple setbacks, of course).

Although Gridiron Gang is based on a documentary about the real-life Porter and his success as a football coach and mentor (footage from the documentary are interspersed throughout the end credits), it still follows the sports drama clichés: obstacles, setbacks, initial success, followed by more setbacks, self doubts, inspirational speeches about winners and losers, all capped by a life-changing game. Cue a close score between rival teams and the final countdown to zero as our heroes make a slow-motion dash for the end zone. All that might sound overly critical, but it shouldn’t be. Combing the clichés and conventions of the genre with “social conscience” melodramas at least adds some novelty to Gridiron Gang’s otherwise predictable storyline and sermonizing.

While the movie aspires to be another inspirational sports drama (it is, to be fair), there's still something troubling about taking a violent, aggressive team sport and using it to build self-esteem and pride in individual accomplishment among violent offenders, regardless of their age. It may be that for high school, college, and professional athletes, but for everyone else with limited talent or ability, football is a temporary diversion from the harsh, everyday realities that originally brought the teenagers to the juvenile detention center and that await them once they're released from the detention center. Points to the Gridiron Gang’s producers for telling us what’s happened to the original team’s members once they left the detention (it’s mostly positive, with only some negatives).

That aside, Gridiron Gang is The Rock's film. He's floating head is prominently displayed on the posters, he gets most of the lines in the TV spots and commercial trailers, and despite multiple subplots involving members of the football team and whether they’ll revert back to gangbanging, it's Johnson as Sean Porter who centers the film. The Rock has graduated to the mentor role about 10-15 years ahead of schedule. It seems like an odd choice for him, but not in the context of his pursuit of non-action roles (e.g., his role as a gay bodyguard in Be Cool). Sure, Porter eventually puts on football pads to prove a point, but it may not be enough for The Rock’s fans.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars