Gridiron Gang

Reviewed By brianorndorf
Posted 09/15/06 16:28:18

"Maybe this film will kill The Rock off for good"
3 stars (Average)

“Gridiron Gang” is as generic an underdog sports film as can be made, but it has a little spark of life in its corner: Dwayne Johnson. The (hopefully) former “Rock” gives a touching, passionate performance that props up this lazy film when it needs it the most. Too bad “Gang” crumbles in the final moments due to blinding stupidity.

Witnessing the lack of hope for a better life permeating the kids at his juvenile detention center, social worker Sean Porter (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) uses football to unify his inmates. Forming the Mustangs, Porter recruits the worst and most withdrawn offenders to play for his slapdash team, much to the disbelief of the staff. With only weeks to train these apathetic, yet dangerous kids, Porter leads them out on a full game schedule where the team is forced to disregard gang ties, racial boundaries, and self-loathing to come together and better themselves through the game of football.

When I watch Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson act, I see limitless potential. He’s not quite a world class thespian yet, but he exudes such affability and authenticity, it’s nearly impossible to doubt anything that comes out of his mouth. “Gridiron Gang” is the first film that uses Johnson to the best of his abilities, and his zealous performance is easily the only reason why any ticket buyer should spend time and hard-earned money on this film.

To portray real life coach Sean Porter, Johnson needs to express the heart of a lion. Porter was in a violent, dreary situation corralling these enraged kids, with the sun quickly setting on his optimism for their future. Johnson nails the frustration of Porter as he tries to change the unchangeable, belching fire toward those that oppose him, and opening his heart to those that trust him. Johnson is an open wound in “Gang,” giving a breathing, emotional performance (no eyebrow shtick here either), while also making sure to sell the screaming ogre that was Porter on the sidelines.

“Gang” only gels as a drama because of Johnson’s dedication to making Porter a human being first, and an “Inspiratron 3000” movie formula robot second. Even if half of his lines are motivational speeches, you believe his words and admire his actions. Heavens, if Johnson could ignore any more junk like “Doom” for the rest of his career, he might actually have a shot at expanding his potential. And he can lose that hideous “Rock” label too.

Making a long awaited return to the big screen is director Phil Joanou, but his visual ambitions are a bit screwy. Clearly, Joanou peeped the camerawork playbook used by Peter Berg in “Friday Night Lights,” as both films share a crackhead-like reliance on sputtery zooms and restless camera movement. It’s pointless indulgence, really, and pronounces itself throughout the entire picture. Yeah, we get it: this is a tough, gritty story from “the streets.” Joanou has built his career on resourceful directing (the 80s classics, “Three O’Clock High” and “Rattle and Hum”), which makes this hacky visual experience unsatisfactory, and potentially nauseating to some viewers.

Now, we all know that “Gridiron Gang” isn’t going to set the world on fire with originality; this is a simple underdog sports story (the second in just under a month), and in no way does the script want to arm wrestle formula. To rodeo clown away from the predictability of it all, Joanou positions his bursts of violence expertly. Always on the run from their past lives, Porter’s kids are constantly in harm’s way, and I enjoyed how Joanou almost regrets introducing the painful reality of the outside world as the team loses themselves in the fleeting fantasy of football victory. Be it a bullet from a gun, a furious sucker punch, or the mere appearance of a enemy in a vulnerable spot, the fragile nature of full rehabilitation is always in jeopardy for the young men, and I was shoved to the edge of my seat with every left turn of tragedy.

It’s all not touchdowns and gang truces, however. As proficient as “Gridiron” is for most of its duration, it makes a single cataclysmic mistake in the final ten minutes that turns it from a picture wary of cliché to one that jumps ferociously toward it, like a rabid dog. You see, to rise up in the ranks, the primarily African-American Mustang team has to play various Christian and suburban schools. Of course, after spending considerable effort to avoid the obvious, Joanou includes the utterance of the all-powerful N-word from a southern Caucasian teen toward a Mustang before the conclusion of the film just to boost the sympathy factor and to enrage the audience artificially. It’s truly disgusting, and topples the goodwill “Gridiron” was constructing up to that point.

Joanou is smart to hold this brain-dead moment until the end of the film. Had it appeared in the middle, the picture would’ve expired with it. Placed at the end, you only have to curse life for a mere 10 minutes before storming out. Either way, it decimates the messages of peace and hope that “Gridiron” induced. All that gone to a moment of sheer stupidity and repulsive pandering. What a waste.

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