Sports movies about underdogs battling and clawing from behind to make it to the big game are as familiar as the old gang on Monday -- excuse me, Sunday -- Night Football. And "Gridiron Gang" is as formula-bound as they get, even though it's a movie taken from real life.
"Gridiron Gang's" seeming prefab movie-inspirational plot -- a group of colorful, rebellious young felons at a California juvenile detention camp molded into a winning team by their hard-driving probation officer/coach, Sean Porter (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) -- was based on a 1992 documentary of the same title by the same producer, Lee Stanley. At the end, we even see brief excerpts from that doc, with the real-life Sean Porter and the players' counterparts doing and saying some of the same things we've heard in the movie.
Somehow, though, this "Gridiron Gang" winds up seeming like shopworn cliche anyway. Is that a comment on the picture itself or on the superficial ways that most movies and TV shows incline us to view athletics and juvenile crime? (Perhaps both.)
Directed by Phil Joanou ("U2: Rattle and Hum"), "Gang" is pitched as a mix of gritty street crime drama and heroic sports thriller-comedy -- a kind of cross between "Boyz N the Hood" and "The Longest Yard." It takes place at Camp Kilpatrick, an actual detention camp near Malibu, and Joanou shows these fictionalized guys in the hood -- especially future running star Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker) and his rival-gang foe, future defensive star Kelvin Owens (David Thomas) -- and then under Coach Porter's hard-knuckled, warmhearted regime.
The Rock's Sean may have an occasionally nasty mouth and a prettier face than Vince Lombardi, but here, down deep, he's the same tough but fatherly molder-of-men we've seen from Pat O'Brien's Knute Rockne forward. Sean, a man of biceps and principle, depressed by the grim futility of the camp and the violence of the boys, decides that football is the way to turn surly young thugs into citizens. Along with sidekick Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), he sets up the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs, gets them uniforms and equipment and arranges a schedule of games with top local high school teams.
Of course Sean prevails, despite scoffing and skepticism from his more cynical superiors Paul Higa (Leon Rippy) and Ted Dexter (Kevin Dunn), a lot of attitude from the players and a succession of bone-crunching and often bigoted opponents. At first, his Kilpatrick guys tend to come across as tormented young delinquents, like Willie, or comical hooligans, like Setu Taase's Samoan muscleman, Junior Palaita, or oddballs, like Trever O'Brien as token Caucasian and broken-home victim Kenny Bates. But they all become proud Mustangs with impressive speed, marching toward their final date against a mean championship team given to dirty play and racial epithets.
Much of "Gridiron Gang," including that finale, is based on fact. But, as written by Jeff Maguire ("In the Line of Fire"), the movie veers wildly from violent melodrama to comedy to sermonizing, becoming, in this tangle, yet another movie demonstration of how school sports and good coaches can level society's playing fields and give young athletes a sense of community and purpose.
All that can be true. But here it doesn't necessarily play right. The street scenes get an impressively gritty and downbeat look from the director and his technicians. But Joanou, who has done broad teen comedy for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment ("Three O'Clock High") and Scorsese-style crime drama ("State of Grace"), can't navigate all the intended emotional shifts the script throws at us.
Playing Sean, the Rock commendably tries to broaden the hitherto comic-book hero range of his parts in movies such as "The Mummy Returns," "The Scorpion King" and (his best) "The Rundown." There's even a scene between Sean and his desperately ill mother, along with lots of tough-love wrangles with his kids. As sports movies go, "Gridiron Gang" isn't bad, just not top-line material. Even when it plays its heart out, this movie's cliched environment drags it down.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some startling scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language
A Columbia/Sony Pictures release. Director Phil Joanou. Screenplay Jeff Maguire. Producers Neil H. Moritz, Lee Stanley. Director of photography Jeff Cutter. Editor Joel Negron. Running time 2 hours.
In general release.