Just when you thought that Disney had a stranglehold–a term the star of this picture would certainly appreciate–on inspirational sports movies, along comes “Gridiron Gang” from Columbia. And though one of the producing entities is called Original Film, nothing could be further from the truth; the picture might just as well have been titled “Remember the Titans on the Longest Yard.”
In what’s essentially a by-the-numbers script by Jeff Maguire, inevitably identified as “based on a true story,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays Sean Porter, an officer at a juvenile detention facility, who’s tired of seeing his charges released and soon brought back again, or worse, killed on the mean streets. He comes up with the idea of fighting recidivism and, indirectly, gang-versus-gang violence on the outside, by organizing the inmates into a football team, where they’ll be able to see what it’s like to have a real goal and learn a sense of teamwork and camaraderie that cuts across hostile neighborhood lines. Despite the doubts of colleagues like Ted Dexter (Kevin Dunn), Porter and his fellow officer Malcolm (Xzibit) get the program going and are able to set up a schedule with schools in the locality.
Emphasis then shifts to the players. Some of them are comic-reliefers, of course, like little Bug (Brandon Mychal Smith), who becomes the water boy, or obese Evans (Jamal Mixon), who’s given the job of equipment manager after dropping off the squad. But the central figures are running back Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker), wide receiver Kenny Bates (Trever O’Brien), and quarterback Leon Hayes (Mo), whom Porter must not only instruct in the game but toughen up and teach to play in tandem, as well as their teammates linebacker Calvin Owens (David Thomas), lineman Junior Palaita (Setu Taase) and lineman Donald Madlock (James Earl III). Needless to say, after a bad start, they gel, build up their confidence, and start winning. They also begin to jettison the animosities they brought with them from the streets and develop loyalties that cross over gang lines. They transfer their new commitment to the goal of improving their lives after release. When violence threatens to derail the season, Sean’s initially doubtful colleagues step in to save the day–and the program. And, of course, Porter–who’s struggling with the fact that his own mother is terminally ill–learns from the boys, too, as he instructs them.
This is obviously intended as an uplifting tale, and in its original form it undoubtedly was. But as refitted for the big screen, it’s been made hopelessly formulaic and pat. The story arc is thoroughly predictable, down to the obstacles thrown in the team’s way and the personal problems the players–and the coaches–face. Porter’s inspirational speeches come out of a standard playbook, as does the familial background that explains his belief in the transforming power of the game, and when he dons football gear himself to challenge his players to get more physical, you know full well what’s going to happen. And of course all the characters are as stereotypical as the situations they find themselves in. (The only thing that’s missing is a romance for Porter; perhaps it was thought that would interfere with his relationship with his mother. But one of the players has to deal with a stern father who stands in the way of his reconciling with his girlfriend.) Director Phil Joanou brings his usual slickness to the enterprise, but pumps up the cliches rather than downplaying them. And though it’s admirable that Johnson should want to get away from the slam-bang action parts that recall his wrestling background in favor of something more dramatically meaningful, the sad fact is that he doesn’t get much beyond the basics as Porter, one-note gruff in dealing with the kids and one-note teary in interacting with his mother. The supporting cast, adults as well as youngsters, are competent without being terribly distinctive, and the whole physical production is up to standard but little more.
“Gridiron Gang” has its heart in the right place, of course, though inevitably it comes off rather simplistic in its recipe for solutions to very real social problems. And the makers have compounded the problem by including, over the closing credits, excerpts from the 1993 Emmy-winning documentary that in turn inspired the film. Predictably, they’re so much more real and affecting that they make what’s preceded them feel even more synthetic. The moral? Skip the movie and check out the documentary.