Gridiron Gang

on September 15, 2006 by Wade Major
The original “Gridiron Gang” was an Emmy-winning 1993 television documentary about an incredible experiment in which former college football star Sean Porter, now a juvenile detention camp probation officer, was able to transform the lives of seemingly desperate, hopeless and criminally violent teenage boys by whipping them into a crack football team. The dramatized account of that story, also called “Gridiron Gang,” is significantly less powerful but may well be seen by more of the very youths who most need to hear its message. Whatever its broader shortcomings as a movie, that alone makes it something worth cheering for.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, also a successful college player and a promising pro before suffering a knee injury in his senior year, is aptly cast as the headstrong but passionate Porter, determined to prove to both his kids and his superiors that football can, indeed, instill the values and self-esteem necessary to defeat the cycle of violence that eventually turns juvenile felons into adult lifers. It's fundamentally the same as the boot camp philosophy that's taken hold at a variety of similar detention centers nationwide, only in Porter's version they have to measure their strides against some of the best high school football teams in Los Angeles.

The appeal of the story on a cinematic level is obvious -- it's “The Longest Yard” crossed with “Stand and Deliver” or, for that matter, “Dangerous Minds.” And, like its antecedents, it plays the heartstrings loud and hard so as to insure that nobody leaves the theater without a lump in their throat. To that end, there's nothing subtle about Jeff Maguire's (“In the Line of Fire”) script or Phil Joanou's (“State of Grace”) direction, but they are, after all, playing to the “Remember the Titans” demographic. The only question is whether there's room in the marketplace for yet another football movie, coming so soon on the heels of “Invincible” and having to now compete with real football -- college and pro -- as well as the new television series “Friday Night Lights.” History would suggest that there is, but the timing could prove tricky.

Anyone still doubting Johnson's chops as an actor ought to simply dismiss such doubts now -- he's the single most effective thing about the movie, and his heartfelt, convincing portrayal of Porter is hard to resist, even for those accustomed to such archetypes. The cast of mostly unknown youths who constitute his “team” are equally endearing, with highest praise due the remarkable Jade Yorker along with Trevor O'Brien and Setu Taase, the triumvirate that forms the heart and soul of the team. Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Xzibit, Jade Yorker, L. Scott Caldwell, Leon Rippy, Kevin Dunn, David Thomas, Setu Taase, Trevor O'Brien, Brandon Mychal Smith, Mo, James Earl III and Jamal Mixon. Directed by Phil Joanou. Written by Jeff Maguire. Produced by Neal H. Moritz and Lee Stanley. A Sony release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some startling scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language. Running time: 125 min

Tags: Dwayne The Rock Johnson, Xzibit, Jade Yorker, L. Scott Caldwell, Leon Rippy, Kevin Dunn, David Thomas, Setu Taase, Trevor O'Brien, Brandon Mychal Smith, Mo, James Earl III, Jamal Mixon, Phil Joanou, Jeff Maguire. Produced by Neal H. Moritz, Lee Stanley, Sony, Drama, college, athletics, violence

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