Did you know there are 120,000 young Americans in juvenile detention facilities right now, and that 75 percent of them, after being released, will wind up either in prison or dead on the streets? That’s whack, yo.
I learned this from the title cards at the beginning of “Gridiron Gang,” an allegedly inspiring football movie that, while itself merely average, has been assembled from the spare parts of great movies. Why, here’s a little bit of “Stand and Deliver” (or whichever inner-city-school-teacher film you prefer); there’s a chunk that looks like “Hoosiers” (or whichever underdog-sports-team-is-motivated-by-unorthodox-coach flick you like); and that music I’m hearing, heavy on the horns — isn’t that “Rudy”?! Heck, even the plot is basically the same as “The Longest Yard,” though in this case (intentionally) not a comedy.
This earnest, well-meaning, based-on-a-true-story film stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Sean Porter, an officer at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. Sean tries to be a counselor and a friend to these kids and is frustrated when, upon release from juvie, they end up in trouble with the law all over again. Can nothing be done to truly rehabilitate them?
Having been a coach in his previous life, Porter hits on the idea of using football to teach the kids discipline, teamwork and respect. Predictably, the prison’s upper brass is reluctant to try such an unusual program, calling it impossible, but just as predictably, Porter has some impassioned things to say on the subject. “Let’s try the impossible,” he says. “Because the possible just ain’t workin’.”
Porter handpicks the boys he thinks will benefit most from his coaching and forms a team, begging local high schools to play against them as an unofficial part of the league. Among his proteges are Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker), a mostly good kid who shot his mother’s abusive boyfriend; Junior Palaita (Setu Taase), a large Polynesian boy initially deemed too combative to play on the team; and Kelvin (David V. Thomas), whose gang affiliation rivals Willie’s, which may lead to trouble.
The team, dubbed the Mustang, plays poorly at first, rebels against Porter’s overzealous coaching methods, comes to respect him, plays better, and learns valuable life lessons. These events are ticked off without flavor or variety, shot in that jittery football-is-war style so common in sports flicks nowadays. Even the charismatic Dwayne “Don’t Call Me ‘The Rock’ When I’m Trying to Be Serious” Johnson seems subdued, as if attempting socially important work has sucked the life out of him.
Directed proficiently but without distinction by Phil Joanou (“U2: Rattle and Hum”) and written by Jeff Maguire, this is the type of film that has nothing wrong with it, really, but that doesn’t have anything particularly right with it either. As I’ve said about several films in recent years, watching it will have approximately the same impact on you as not watching it. It can’t compare with the truly great films of this sort, but it passes the time.
C+ (2 hrs.; )