A "Gang" worth joining

Sept. 21, 2006, midnight | By Andrew Kung | 17 years, 2 months ago

The Rock's "Gridiron Gang" is surprisingly touching

With any movie starring The Rock, one can expect a healthy dose of shooting, shouting, and his signature angry, bewildered stare. "Gridiron Gang," the latest from director Phil Joanou, provides the aforementioned, but packs some surprisingly emotional performances as well. Although it may seem at times to be overdramatic and sensationalized, Joanou successfully turns a beautiful story into a decent movie.

Based on a real life story of Camp Kilpatrick, "Gridiron Gang" tells the story of Sean Porter (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a probation officer at the Los Angeles County juvenile detention center. From armed robbery to car theft to murder, the incarcerated youth are convicted criminals hardened by life on the streets of LA. Tired of preparing the camp's youth for failure before releasing them to be slaughtered on the street, Porter begins a football team hoping to create an environment of discipline and self-esteem for the neglected teens.

At first, the adolescents are reluctant to join organized activity, as are opposing coaches wary of facing a team made up of criminals. Camp Kilpatrick officials also treat the idea with great skepticism. Still, Porter holds his ground enough to overcome his own demons: his dying mother, his unfulfilled football dreams and his unresolved bitterness toward his father. Through all of this, Porter is still able to mold the criminals into the Kilpatrick Mustangs.

Past gang allegiances are forgotten and new bonds of camaraderie and friendship are forged. The storyline is not unlike other tales of self journey through sports, with a team that starts with misfit losers who later emerge as champions and true teammates. Still, there are stirring moments that distinguish it from the rest. The montage of clips of testimony from the actual Sean Porter and the real life Kilpatrick Mustangs at the movie's end is definitely worth sticking around for.

Certain scenes are over-the-top and unrealistic at times, especially some over-dramatized depictions of high school football. Also, the youth seem remarkably docile for convicted criminals. Rebellion and defiance are prevalent in the youth, but one can sometimes forget that the Mustangs are not suburban 10 year olds playing Pop Warner.

The Rock provides his usual arm baring and bug-eyed screaming, but with added panache at times. Faced with his first major role in which he does more than grunt and beat up bad guys, he does a fair job, expanding his acting range tremendously. Granted, some emotional scenes with him are laughable, as he attempts to shed his gruff and emotionless image. As The Rock sits crying with a struggling youth, viewers still have trouble forgoing images of his past Wrestlemania days. Still, The Rock's overall depiction as a man molding delinquents and creating self worth is surprisingly solid.

Especially poignant are the scenes with Porter's dying mother Bobbi, who is beautifully portrayed by L. Scott Caldwell. The team's relationships in the outside world are well played too, as the depictions of mothers, girlfriends and children of the inmates add an extra layer to the film, making the film surprisingly realistic.

The cast of young actors portraying the law-breaking teens are respectable and surprisingly real for the most part, infusing the film with an authentic swagger. Nevertheless, the inexperience shines through on occasions as they attempt to depict the difficult life that can only be shown by those who have lived it. One gets a sense of it by watching the children try to act like thugs, but instead looking foolish in the process.

Another unexpectedly solid performance comes from Xzibit (Malcolm Moore), a fellow counselor at Camp Kilpatrick who serves as assistant coach. Apparently, fawning excitement over useless gadgets as host of MTV's "Pimp My Ride" has left the rapper with a good sense of how to express patience and tough love to juvenile delinquents.

Intensity and emotion are in good balance throughout the film. The violence of life inside the camp and out on the streets is shown in epic detail, when a prison fight and a drive-by shooting incorporate exciting realism into the first few minutes of the film. Tear-jerking moments are of no short quantity either, although some are expounded by a cheesy, hackneyed soundtrack.

While it may be too violent and contain too many obscenities to be considered a true family film, "Gridiron Gang" portrays a great message of hope in a hostile environment.
Despite the occasional artificiality, The Rock and crew have created an astonishingly powerful effort definitely worth watching.

"Gridiron Gang" (120 minutes; area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some startling scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language.

Andrew Kung. Andrew Kung is a rising Magnet junior who is psyched for a year of Chips Online. He has lived in New York, Michigan, and New Mexico prior to his current residence in Maryland. As a cynical sports fan, he is not often disappointed, but not … More »

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