Directed by Phil Joanou
Written by Jeff Maguire
I’ve played sports all my life, and the time I spent as a young person playing competitive team sports I think has a lot to do with many of the values I exhibit today. Now, obviously there are many factors that form us into the adults we become, including parentage, circumstance, education, etc. But I truly believe that sports participation, specifically team sports, teaches young people a lot about what it means to work together towards a common goal, it teaches a lot about sportsmanship and the noble competition. While everyone wants to win, will sacrifice mind and body to achieve that goal, the pursuit is often the most fulfilling, and just because the other team is working against you, doesn’t mean they are against you personally. They want the same thing you want, victory.
This “based on a true story” may seem like a cliche story to tell time and time again on the silver screen, but it’s just as inspiring and moving each time. Sean Porter (Dwayne Johnson) works at a juvenile detention center, mentoring and disciplining young men who have committed heinous crimes, often in participation of gangs. So when he sees the divide among the young men, he recommends the center start a football team to teach them teamwork. As a rag tag bunch of tough guys who don’t know how to work together, the program starts with its bumps, but Coach Porter is eventually able to harness their desire to be winners and turn them into a real team, capable of overcoming their differences to see their similarities.
I mentioned that this is a cliche story, and I truly mean it. We can all read a brief plot description and see where this is going, but it’s a cliche for a reason. It’s real, based on a true story, which makes it an inspiring journey to spend with these troubled young men, and it’s still moving and emotional to spend that journey with them, and see them through to the outcome. That there is nothing new here certainly holds the film back from being something special, new and different from what we may have seen before (re: Remember the Titans overcoming racism for instance), but that it hits all of the right notes for a story like this makes it a very watchable and enjoyable film within this genre.
As an early Dwayne Johnson vehicle, you can tell he is still transitioning into movie stardom, but this is also the perfect kind of vehicle for his persona. As a former football player (he even gets to don the 94 he wore at Miami here), he feels like he’d be a great coach, especially to the type of troubled teens we see here. He has the physical build to be intimidating even to gang bangers, even if he seems relatively small when compared to how we know Dwayne Johnson today. He’s still 6′ 5″ and swole. The rest of the cast is a group of unknown young actors and a bunch of “that guy”s, including Leon Rippy and Kevin Dunn as administrators and Xzibit from MTV’s “Pimp My Ride”. Xzibit especially, as the assistant coach, seems oddly placed given the character hardly utters two lines throughout the movie.
I was actually surprised Gridiron Gang worked as well as it did. I will admit I went into this viewing expecting a schlocky, overly sentimental and poor film about troubled teens. It was way more hard hitting than I expected, showing some depth of the troubles these men have seen and are going through. It toes the line between schlocky, sentimental and too hard-boiled for its own good. The balance struck here is surprising and effective and makes Gridiron Gang a good movie I would feel comfortable recommending as early Dwayne Johnson and decent, albeit predictable, football action.