GRIDIRON GANG (Phil Joanou, 2006)
In GRIDIRON GANG juvenile detention center counselor Sean Porter (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) notices that many of the boys he and his co-workers are supposed to be rehabilitating return with fresh sentences or end up killed. The teenagers are full of anger but have no productive way of releasing their energy. A former college pigskin star whose career was cut short by injury, Sean decides that football might be a positive way to channel their pent-up aggression, build teamwork, and cross the gang lines that extend into the center.
The philosophy espoused in GRIDIRON GANG places the team above the individual, but the film is carried on the broad shoulders of the charismatic Johnson. The actor, best known from his days as a pro wrestler, has almost always been the best thing about his films, even the lousy ones. His imposing figure and megawatt smile allow him to be at home doing action and comedy, and on screen he comes across as eminently likable.
GRIDIRON GANG is a transitional movie for the star. Johnson exercises traditional dramatic chops as the inspirational coach who has the best interests of the wayward kids at heart. He’s completely convincing as someone smooth enough to finesse the administrators who initially balk at the idea and tough enough to make the juvenile delinquents listen and respect him. The end credits show snippets of a documentary about the coach on whom Johnson’s character is based. It’s astonishing how much Johnson resembles him in personality and physical presence. If there was still any doubt, Johnson should no longer have to fight his wrestling past to be taken seriously as an actor.
As for the football action and motivational storyline, GRIDIRON GANG hits the standard beats with a light touch. The outcome-driven sports movie requirements are balanced with the emotional arcs of the counselors and the players. The gridiron play is fast and hard-hitting but not so overblown that it seems like a miracle anyone can walk away unharmed. The players’ troubled backgrounds aren’t soft sold or overdramatized. A minor fault is the impression that Sean works at the center 24 hours a day except when he’s visiting his sick mother. He’s not made out to be a saint, but with his work load it wouldn’t hurt to be one.
GRIDIRON GANG is a hybrid of familiar football movies and teacher-as-savior films. The conventions don’t limit the film but pave the way for a highly satisfying view.