Review: Gridiron Gang

Recidivism is the name of Gridiron Gang’s game.

Gridiron Gang
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Recidivism is the name of Gridiron Gang’s game. That’s not only because this based-on-reality tale focuses on a juvenile detention center counselor’s attempts to redirect his inmates’ criminal life paths via football, but also because Phil Joanou’s film, written by Jeff Maguire, is a throwback to every sports and teacher-mentors-troublesome-kids inspirational melodrama made during the past three decades.

Were it not already taken, Angels with Dirty Faces might have been an apt alternative title for this TRUE STORY (over-emphasizing capitalization courtesy of the intro text crawl). The focus here is on Sean Porter (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a caring juvie hall employee who, in an effort to break through the cycle of gang violence and illicit behavior ensnaring his unruly charges, teaches them discipline, selflessness, and self-sufficiency by organizing a football team called the Mustangs and pitting them against local L.A. high school squads.

Wind sprints and jumping jacks weed out the weak, gang rivalries threaten to undermine team camaraderie, and the burden of disappointment (and lure of easy-way-out quitting) jeopardizes the season. Joanou, though, takes none of the risks that his pigskin-teaching protagonist does, utilizing a grab bag of slow-motion on-field footage, a mawkishly overblown score, and predictably stirring montages with banal competence.

Lurking on the edges of Gridiron Gang’s hackneyed motivational pep talks and rousing scenes of kids overcoming obstacles are pertinent socio-economic and racial issues, but the script (based on Jac Flanders’s 1993 movie of the same name) is far too cowardly to intelligently confront them, either ignoring or—in the case of an evil white opponent who repeatedly calls Porter’s African American players “boy” before dropping the n-word during the big game—shamefully exploiting its inherent black-white, rich-poor discord for manipulative tension.

By reducing its locked-up subjects to simply “good kids who made a bad decision,” Gridiron Gang saps them (and its reasonably uplifting narrative) of any authentic human dimension, their often-serious crimes disingenuously downplayed in an effort to make them more lovable and inspiring, and their eventual redemption complicated by a conflicting postscript which makes clear that, for some, Porter’s efforts were in vain. An even more futile endeavor, though, is asking the likeable but emotively limited Rock to carry a film not by smashing skulls in trademark WWE fashion, but by shedding a few tears over his dying mother and abusive father.

 Cast: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Xzibit, L. Scott Caldwell, Leon Rippy, Kevin Dunn, Jade Yorker, David V. Thomas, Setu Taase, Mo McRae, James Early, Trevor O'Brien, Brandon Smith, Jurnee Smollett  Director: Phil Joanou  Screenwriter: Jeff Maguire  Distributor: Columbia Pictures  Running Time: 120 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2006  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Nick Schager

Nick Schager is the entertainment critic for The Daily Beast. His work has also appeared in Variety, Esquire, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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