by Mel Valentin
Former-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is back on screen, this time setting aside action heroics for the wise mentor role, a football coach, in Phil Joanou's ("Final Analysis," "State of Grace," "U2: Rattle and Hum," "Three O'Clock High") return to feature-length filmmaking, the "based on a true story" "Gridiron Gang." Johnson, an ex-linebacker for the University of Miami, turned his athletic skills to good use when he became a professional wrestler. After half a decade as a fan-favorite wrestler, Johnson segued into acting, primarily in action films (e.g., "The Scorpion King," "The Rundown," "Walking Tall," "Doom," the upcoming "Spyhunter"). Outside of a catchphrase ("Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?"), Johnson's costume-free wrestling persona made it relatively easy for him to transition out of wrestling and into action films. Which brings us back to "Gridiron Gang."Sean Porter (Johnson), a senior counselor at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles County, hopes to find something, anything that can help the teenagers under his charge escape adult prison or premature, violent death. Most of the detention center’s teenagers come from rough, poverty-stricken areas. Many, if not most, are gangbangers. All looks bleak until Porter, a former footballer, hits on the idea of putting together a high school-level football team drawn from Camp Kilpatrick’s teenagers. With the support of a junior counselor, Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), takes his plan to his superiors, Paul Hira (Leon Drippy) and Ted Dexter (Kevin Dunn), who immediately express reservations about Porter’s plan, especially since Porter wants the center’s team play a full schedule against other high school teams.
"The Rock as you've never seen him before. Well sorta."
Even after Porter gets conditional approval, he has to convince the young men to join the team, train, and get ready for their first game against a local powerhouse, Barrington, all in four weeks. In particular, Porter has to convince the detainees with the greatest potential to join and stick with the team. Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker) has the potential to become a great running back, but he has to overcome a violent, traumatic past, the loss of someone close to him, the presence of rival gangbangers, particularly Kelvin (David V. Thomas), and his own self doubts. His girlfriend, Danyelle (Jurnee Smollett), has also turned away from him. Porter fills out his team with Leon Hayes (Mo), a quarterback, Junior Palatial (Setup Taase), a fullback, and Kenny Bates (Trever O'Brien), a wide receiver/defensive back. Porter also has to deal with his mother’s terminal illness just as the center’s football team, now dubbed the Mustangs, begins to succeed (after multiple setbacks, of course).
Although Gridiron Gang is based on a documentary about the real-life Porter and his success as a football coach and mentor (snippets of footage from the documentary are interspersed throughout the end credits), it still follows the usual clichés associated with the sports drama, obstacles, setbacks, initial success, followed by more setbacks, self doubts, inspirational speeches about winners and losers, all capped by a life-changing game. Cue a close score between rival teams and the final countdown to zero as our heroes make a slow-motion dash for the end zone. All that might sound overly critical, but it shouldn’t be. Combing the clichés and conventions of the genre with “social conscience” melodramas at least adds some novelty and originality to Gridiron Gang’s otherwise predictable storyline.
While Gridiron Gang aspires to be the latest entry in a long series of feel-good, inspirational sports dramas, there's something troubling about taking an admittedly violent team sport that channels aggressive impulses into socially proscribed mayhem and turning said sport into a vehicle for personal fulfillment. It may be that for high-school, college, and professional athletes, but for everyone else without the ability to succeed professionally, it's, at most, a minor, temporary diversion from the harsh, everyday realities that originally brought the teenagers to the juvenile detention center and that await them once they're released from the detention center. Points to the Gridiron Gang’s producers for telling us what’s happened to the original team’s members once they left the detention (it’s mostly positive, with some negatives).That aside, "Gridiron Gang" is, of course, Johnson's film. He's prominently displayed in the posters, gets the majority of the lines in the TV spots and commercial trailers, and despite the by-the-numbers, "inspirational" storyline about at-risk youth overcoming the odds, economic, cultural, and otherwise, it's Johnson as the counselor-coach, Sean Porter, who centers "Gridiron Gang." Johnson, though, has graduated to the mentor role about 10-15 years ahead of schedule. It seems like an odd choice for Johnson, but not in the context of his pursuit of non-action roles (e.g., his role as a gay bodyguard in "Be Cool"). Sure, Johnson goes into action (just once, when he slips on football pads to prove an important point to Willie), but Porter inspires by tough love and the right word at the right time, not through the perfectly orchestrated tackle, but it's not the Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson fans have come to see.
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originally posted: 10/10/06 20:58:42