Directed by: Phil Joanou
Starring: The Rock, Xzibit, L. Scott Caldwell, Leon Rippy, Kevin Dunn
With Gridiron Gang you get almost exactly what you think you will: The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson) teaches a bunch of delinquents self-respect and the meaning of teamwork by turning them into a football team while they're in juvenile prison. In other words, it's another "true story" -- or in this case, "TRUE STORY" -- inspirational sports movie, and you pretty much know whether or not it's your brand of jockstrap from that fact alone. The only difference between this and other films of its type is that it stars The Rock -- and it's a bit grittier than might be expected.
The Rock continues to be more a presence than an actor, though he tries a little harder than usual. The effort is obvious, but the results are not all that persuasive. That said, footage at the end of Gridiron Gang from Lee Stanley's 1993 TV documentary of the same name show The Rock to be considerably more charismatic than the man he plays. But something is lost in the process of this stab at extreme sincerity. As a personality, The Rock is such an innately likable goof that there's a tendency to overlook his work in movies of dubious distinction, but that gets lost here -- to the degree that rapper Xzibit (Derailed), in the somewhat thankless role of his sidekick, Malcolm Moore, comes across as more relaxed and personable.
That said, Gridiron Gang has something going for it in its unflinching depiction of gang life, giving at least the illusion of realism. Screenwriter Jeff Maguire (Timeline) and director Phil Joanou (Entropy) definitely push the limits, in terms of violence and language, of the movie's PG-13 rating. In the first 20 minutes, there's a drive-by shooting (accompanied by a drive-over killing) and an act of domestic violence that leads to another shooting. You immediately get the sense that the filmmakers aren't just playing around here (even if it's a tone the film can't sustain, given its ultimate goal of uplift). Similarly, the language is realistic -- at least as far as is permissible under the MPAA guidelines.
Regardless of how well this works for adult viewers, it certainly makes the film more accessible to its presumedly youthful target audience, something that's often forgotten in these high-minded projects. There's nothing more ludicrous than street gangs who say "gosh" and "darn" -- and nothing so alienating to kids whose everyday discourse might give pause to a sailor. Of course, there's a potential downside to all this, since it runs the risk of appealing for all the wrong reasons; but without running that risk, there's precious little point in attempting such a film.
It also helps that Joanou chose to shoot the film in an equally gritty, pseudo-documentary style. The constant use of deliberately awkward zoom shots may wear thin, but this at least gives the movie a sense of identity usually lacking in this sort of formula film, which is frequently cluttered with "inspiring" crane shots backed by syrupy music.
Unfortunately, the syrupy score (by Trevor Rabin) is still with us -- and so is most of the formula. The admirable stabs at realism to one side, Gridiron Gang is the expected collection of cliches. All the underdogs-coming-from-behind moments are alive and intact, as is the usual array of "feel-good" moments and hokey inspirational speeches. When The Rock (let's face it, he's always The Rock playing at being the character) gives his big speech about forgiving his father, it straddles the line between stomach-turning and just plain funny. From a strictly dramatic standpoint, it's never more than adequate and sometimes not that. Plus, at a few minutes past the two-hour mark, the movie's way overlong. But it does get a few points for effort. Rated PG-13 for startling scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke