Gridiron Gang

The story behind the making of “Gridiron Gang” is probably more interesting that the familiar and clich inspirational saga unfolding on screen. I report with great regret that what's billed as a movie for Phil Joanou (who has not made a film in years, and whose last feature had not released theatrically) is disappointingeven by standards of the genre.

As written by Jeff Maguire and helmed by Joanou, it's an almost unnecessary feature, since it draws on a decent documentary on the same subject that, while not great, is more satisfying that this schlocky sports-juvenile gang-prison melodrama.

With “Gridiron Gang,” Sony and Joanou seem to be entering into a turf that has become Disney's specialty, the subgenre of inspirational sports movies, currently represented by the Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Invincible,” which is a commercial hit and still in theaters in wide release.

In the wannabe gritty and emotional story, wannabe action star Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson plays juvenile detention camp probation officer Sean Porter, who, along with another officer, Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), turns a group of hardcore teenage felons into a high school football team in four weeks. Confronted with gang rivalries and bitter hatred between his teammates, Porter teaches hard lessons (and learns some himself) as the kids gain self-respect and a sense of responsibility.

Based on a true story, “Gridiron Gang” is a simplistic message movie, very much in the American cultural vein of celebrating individualism, here in the shape of one man who “can make a difference” in the world, and how our society's most “hopeless” kids can change the course of their lives through hard work, commitment, and bold leadership.

The heroic adventure begins as an idea born out of frustration. Perplexed and appalled by the alarmingly rate of recidivism (as high as 75 percent) among his troubled young charges at Camp Kilpatrick, probation officer Porter and colleague Moore are desperately looking for a way to lift these youngsters out of the desperate circumstances that landed them at the maximum security juvenile compound.

Most have been convicted of crimes within their communities, in and around Los Angeles, forced to live together in an atmosphere of mutual distrust and outright hatred. As is often the case with such pictures, the groups are multi-racial and initially conflict-ridden. The cliques' forced truce often explodes into violence, and Camp Kilpatrick is seen by the judicial system as a last chance for these youths before incarceration in California Youth Authority, where they'll experience the horrors of adult life in lockup.

Getting these county's wards to care about themselves and show respect for their lives has been a thankless task even for the tough and dedicated counselors Porter and Moore. Too many of the boys in their care have gone back out into the world, only to end up in prison, or far too often meet a violent death before reaching adulthood.

As a teenager, Porter overcame his own personal problems to become a first-rate high-school football player. He wonders if the lessons he learned through discipline and team spirit could be applied to these young men, helping them to overcome their hopelessness. Porter and Moore cobble together a team, the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs, from among the facility's residents, some of whom are eager to play, while others are resistant.

By the book, the earnest movie dwpicts step-by-step how Porter and Moore strive diligently to gain the team members' trust. Slowly, through indefatigable dedication, the youngsters begin to overcome their differences and commit to regular football practice, despite a myriad of obstacles, both psychological and physical. For starters, the camp field is little more than a rock-strewn pasture, there is no money for equipment, and the practice conflicts with other school classes. Then, there's the enmity of the other inmates, who are not selected to be part of the team, igniting violent outbursts that land key players in solitary confinement.

Nonetheless, gradually, the members begin to demonstrate special abilities: Willie has a gift for running the football; Calvin (David Thomas) has the ability to tackle any runner–especially Willie, since they come from warring gangs in South Central L.A.; Madlock (James Earl III) is a natural lineman; while Kenny has the hands of a receiver. Others like Bug (Brandon Mychal Smith) and Evans (Jamal Mixon) lend their support as team managers.

As the team progresses through drills on the hot, dusty makeshift gridiron, there are setbacks to be sure, and in due time there are triumphs to be sure. When Junior is seriously injured, the loss of his leadership is deeply felt. Undeterred, Willie and Calvin continue to scrap and wind up in solitary confinement. If these problems are not enough, Coach Porter suffers a serious loss after his mothers health deteriorates.

I dont think I am spoiling anyone's fun by saying that, in the end, Porter and Moore manage to convince one high-school coach after another to play their team, since the movie's upbeat resolution is not only predictable but built into the genre's conventions. When the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs prove themselves to be worthy adversaries, they earn enough trust to be allowed to travel beyond the locked gates of their Santa Monica Mountains prison. Through a season that tests their minds and bodies, the players gain self-respect and respect for each other.

With that maturity comes the realization that their lives–and by extension every American life–are not hopeless and desperate, that if the team can reach the regional championship game, it will be the first but not last accomplishment about which they could only fantasize in the past.

As noted above, Dwayne (“the Rock”) Johnson considers “Gridiron Gang” to be a personal, meaningful project, claiming that Sean Porter's troubled childhood parallels his own. As a kid who had been arrested 8 times before reaching the age of 14, Johnson was also saved by channeling his energies in a positive way through the competitive sport of football.

Says the actor: I was lucky in that my arresting officer told me that he was either going to continue to kick my ass and arrest me every week, or take me off the streets and put me into the freshman high school football program. I was fortunate to have someone care enough about what happened to me at that point in my life. He took me out of a bad environment and filled the void in my life with football. It taught me so many things beyond the actual game, like teamwork, sacrifice and choosing to do the right things in life.

I quote Johnson to suggest the huge gap that prevails between the picture's honorable intent and actual execution level. To put it more bluntly, a personal, inspirational, fact-based saga can result in just as lousy and corny movie like “Gridiron Gang” as a picture that's not based on any of these factors.