by David Cornelius
Imagine a movie comprised of inspirational clichés and absolutely nothing else. Scene after scene after scene would contain not ordinary plot development but instead the broadest, heartstring-tuggingest series of actions. Ordinary dialogue would be completely absent, replaced by speechifying. Every single minute would feature what would constitute in an ordinary inspirational movie as the big final scene - one after another after another, a sort of greatest hits of feel good flicks. Naturally, the orchestra would work overtime just trying to keep up with the pace.This, ladies and gentlemen, is “Gridiron Gang,” a movie so over-the-top it just might pass out from the lack of oxygen. So desperate is this film to make every moment an applause generator that it loses any sense of logic or finesse. I am not exaggerating when I say every single scene is designed for maximum emotional impact at the cost of all else.
"Remember All the Right Friday Night Varsity Titans Radio Blues Moves, Lucas"
Consider a scene in which the coach of the football team (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) has been running his boys ragged, refusing them water until they get a certain play just right. One player sits down and refuses to work until water is delivered. Then another joins in, and another, and another still, and so on, as the music swells and echoes of “O captain my captain” stir in the back of your mind. The coach smiles, praises the boys for finally working as a team, then grants them a water break.
Now, this scene has nothing to do with anything. At all. It doesn’t show them working together as a team, despite what anybody says. It doesn’t show the coach learning to ease up on the kids (that scene comes later, naturally). It’s just a chance for the movie to congratulate itself for being inspiring. It’s tearjerking for tearjerking’s sake.
The entire film is like this, a seemingly endless string of hackneyed scenarios and overcooked notions. Adapted by screenwriter Jeff Maguire from a true story - scratch that, make it TRUE STORY, all caps, as the opening titles spell it proudly - previously seen in a 1993 documentary of the same title, “Gridiron Gang” tells of a Los Angeles juvenile detention center that grants a handful of its inmates a chance at bettering themselves by putting together a football team. Gangbangers, mostly, with a few random other thugs thrown in, these kids are declared losers by their coach, with the promise that “by the end of the season, you’ll be winners.”
Without really bothering to stick to any real facts, the darn thing practically writes itself (and, considering the final product, I think it probably did): two thugs from rival gangs will learn to put aside their colors and get along; a troubled teen yearning for acceptance from his mother just might earn it after all; the guy who can’t even catch a break from the coach proves just how much he wants to change and gets a chance to be a hero on the field; etc., etc. For good measure, the administrators of the detention center are constantly threatening to cancel the program. Meanwhile, every fifth scene involves the coach discovering somebody (maybe even the whole team!) back on the field, hard at work just when he thought they were done for. And to round it all out, the coach’s mom is dying, too. Hey, man, can’t pass up a good dying mom subplot.
It’s overkill, plain and simple. There’s only so much an audience can take before the movie collapses, and “Gridiron Gang” crosses that line ad nauseam. It’s not even subtle in its relentless attempts at the Big Moment: during the obligatory montage of games that carries us from the season’s first game to its last, every single game - I repeat: every single game - is won or lost with the final play. And so this montage becomes a collage of final plays - one so clumsy that it stumbles headfirst into every Big Moment. (One shot opens with the coach telling the team - and us - that it’s only seconds to go, and if they don’t return this punt for a touchdown, they lose the game.) What we get, then, is a montage so anxious to get to the Big Moment that it skips over all else. The movie wants the applause but doesn’t want to work to earn it, so it takes too many shortcuts, jumping right to the payoff. It can’t work.
The only time the film does slow down, it slows down too much, dragging its heels. The film gives us two key games, a season opener and a playoff, with the rest of the season featured in the Big Moment montage. Both games last a good twenty minutes or so, and both feel at least four times longer. Director Phil Joanou gets so worked up with his sports footage that he can’t bring himself to condense. These games drag not only because they’re just too darn long, but also because every single play is the Big Play. These are games filled with nothing but exclamation points, and the constant powerhousing grows redundant almost instantly.
Of course, because the film has zero imagination, both games are played against the same team - a rival team, the villain team. They lose to them their first time out, and now they must show how much they’ve learned since.
Which, in an ordinary film, would be cliché enough. But here, it’s only the beginning. The team’s top player isn’t just smug, he’s racist. Why? Why is this necessary? We both know the answer: so we can get the big moment where the racist jerk gets slammed by the one player who, up until now, couldn’t quite master the art of plowing down opponents on the field. And whaddya know, the crowd liked it the first time, so let’s let him do it twice!
(So pushy is the movie that it can’t be enough for the racist bad guy to call his black opponent “boy,” italicizing the word as he spits it out at the end of every single sentence. No, Maguire is actually worried that modern audiences might not understand that word’s use as a racial slur, so the bad guy has to later say that other word - you know the one - just to let everyone know yes, he is a racist who deserves to be injured repeatedly. You see, the script has no confidence at all in us, the audience. It treats us like idiots and assumes we won’t understand until it’s spelled out slowly and loudly. It underlines what we already understood an hour ago.)
Most disconcerting is the movie’s finale - I’ll play nice and declare a spoiler warning: skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending, although the only thing surprising about the film is just how many idiotic scenes they could glue together all at once.
Anyway. The whole point of the movie, we’re told (yelled at, actually) throughout, is that improving oneself is more important than winning. It’s a nice message, really. Why, then, does the movie end with the nailbiting victory over the rival team, an in-your-face-we’re-better-than-you moment, when a spoken epilogue informs us that the team would go on to lose their next game? Wouldn’t it match the story’s supposed theme to show that loss, only to then show the pride felt by these kids who made it all the way to the championship game despite the odds? The answer, then, is that the movie is lying to us. Yes, it’s nice to say how self-improvement is good, but in the end, it sure better to be a winner. (Then again, this is the same script that tells gang members that violence solves nothing, now go out there and tackle that guy as hard as you can.) Plus, by keeping the focus on the evil team, we get a nice, lazy story arc that shows just how little thought went into this picture.
Alright, end of spoiler. Everyone back? Good. For all its unyielding horribleness, there are a few things that keep “Gridiron Gang” from being a complete wreck. For starters, there’s Johnson, whose commanding screen presence is undeniable and who adds a good deal of charm and heart to the story. When he smiles, we smile. The supporting cast, made up mostly of newcomers in the teen roles and character actors in the adult ones, all deliver sharp performances, despite the stupid things they’re constantly being asked to do here. The comic relief is solid throughout; one scene involving a certain piece of protection and the pain that might occur by the absence thereof, is actually genuinely funny, despite itself. And the football scenes, despite being too long, are well choreographed and impressively filmed.But that’s all gone to waste, as the core of the film is one of monumental stupidity and annoyance. “Gridiron Gang” is a painful experience, a two-hour endurance test that flashes us nothing but the sappiest and muckiest inspirational crud imaginable, with lots and lots of music to let us know we’re supposed to cry now.
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originally posted: 09/14/06 21:19:13