"Gridiron" falls short of touchdown

Sept. 20, 2006, midnight | By Cate McCraw | 14 years, 4 months ago

Inspirational sports drama poignant but predictable

"Gridiron Gang" chronicles the transformation of troubled teens a Los Angeles juvenile detention center into young football stars, thanks to the guidance and determination of their coach, Sean Porter (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). While the story is heartrending and poignant, the plot follows the average template for an inspirational sports film.

The "athletes overcoming adversity" theme is all too common to today's big screen. We had "Remember the Titans" in 2000, "Friday Night Lights" in 2004, and "Glory Road" just this year. It almost feels as if "Gridiron Gang" is the next installment in a series.

Based on a true story of Camp Kilpatrick delinquents, "Gridiron's" at-risk group of boys is taught that they must trade their allegiance to gangs, violence, and hustling for discipline and respect if they have any hope of improving their lives.

The film opens with a narration of startling statistics on the dim futures of juvenile delinquents, and then immediately introduces Porter, who is having an intense discussion with one of the troublemakers in Camp Kilpatrick. Roger Weathers (Michael J. Pagen) is about to be released from the facility, and Porter tells him that if he doesn't stay out of trouble—particularly with his gang—he's going to be dead by the time he's twenty-one. A troubling, violent sequence follows, in which Weathers is murdered in a drive-by shooting. Porter was right: The streets of Los Angeles are clearly the cruel and unforgiving landscape of poverty and desperation.

Motivated by Weathers' death, Porter confronts the authorities at Camp Kilpatrick. He explains that their program is "not even making a dent" in the young men, and that creating a football team is the perfect way to teach the boys to be punctual, respectful, and dedicated. Porter's proposal is accepted, and he begins training the Kilpatrick Mustangs. An overwhelming amount of inspirational music follows, as does a sappy montage reminiscent of the infamous "Rocky" films.

Johnson certainly looks the part of Porter—his tall and muscular stature are intimidating even to the inmates he supervises. His acting, however, is far less convincing. The motivational speeches before games seemed contrived, and most of the emotional scenes lacked credibility. There's just something about "The Rock" getting teary-eyed that doesn't quite work.

The standout performance among the inmates was seen in Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker). As the traumatized cousin of Roger Weathers, Yorker's character is haunted by his family's loss, yet simultaneously unable to detach himself from his gang. His transformation from cynical street thug to dedicated team member was surprisingly believable.

Another notable performance came from rapper/actor Xzibit as the Mustang's assistant coach. Although his role was small, Xzibit's performace as the tough, no-nonsense camp guard was convincing, and his dedication to the team almost seemed more genuine than Johnson's.

There are several violent scenes throughout the movie, featuring intense fights between rival gangs, shootings, and graphic deaths. Combined with strong language, the film is almost out of bounds for a PG-13 rating.

Despite its flaws, "Gridiron Gang" is an enjoyable "road to redemption" story—the audience was cheering for the Mustangs throughout the film, clapping for touchdowns, and saying "Go Willie, go Willie" as he sprinted down the field. Is the ending predictable? Yes. But the film's glimpse into the dark life on Los Angeles streets provides a new, troubling twist on the overdone sports drama.

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

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