September 21, 2006

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Gridiron Gang (PG-13)
The Rock makes a charming motivator to a group of teenage delinquents in The Longest Yard-like Gridiron Gang, a based-on-a-true-story tale of how football will save you.

Hey, if ballroom dance can save troublemaking teens, why not football?

Sean Porter (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) works at a youth detention camp doing good yet, he feels, thankless work. After counseling one young man that if he didn’t shape up he’d either land in jail or the morgue, Sean is deeply bummed to learn that the boy was in fact killed shortly after leaving the camp. These young men need discipline, need to know how to work as a team, need self-confidence, need to believe there is more out there than gangs, Sean tells his Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), a fellow camp worker. Quicker than you can say “cue the inspirational score” Sean and Malcolm decide to start a football team. With the wary support of the camp’s director and a big bag of enthusiasm, Sean throws himself into the team. He makes the young men live, eat, study and train together in hopes of removing gang identities and cajoling them to work as a team. He all but begs coaches of neighboring high school football teams to let his team play them. He even sneaks his team’s equipment past the procurement regulations. He pushes his team to be their very best, though in a loving, upbeat fashion because they take criticism really hard.

Gridiron Gang has an appropriately diverse cast with a diverse supporting cast of People Who Care About Them. It has the soaring score you’d expect. It has the heart-pounding on-field action. It has, of course, an inspirational speech during half-time of the Big Game that you or I or anybody who’s ever seen a sports movie could have written. And yet, it actually has more flavor than you’d expect from the well-chewed piece of gum that is the sports-for-a-better-life movie.

Johnson is a surprisingly appealing actor. I remember being surprised by his talent the first time I saw him on Saturday Night Live and then thinking well, of course, he’s good at comic improv. What is wrestling but physical, costumey improve? In the years since he’s left professional wrestling, he’s become even better at honing the parts of his onscreen persona that aren’t based on muscle size. He was quite possibly the best thing about Be Cool. And here, he stretches even further, giving his character heart, not just laughs.

Gridiron Gang is boilerplate sports inspiration that goes just a bit further largely because of Johnson. C+

— Amy Diaz


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