Sunk by The Rock
The ‘Sports Film’ is about as formula as you can get these days. Introduced and perfected by the Sylvester Stallone-penned Rocky (1976), the pattern was clear: take a one-and-a-million shot underdog and root for him to win the big game. Turn the underdog into underdogs (it helps if they’re misfits), add a crotchety coach and you have the next evolutionary step in this genre: Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears (which, ironically, came in the same year, 1976).
Almost every sports movie since then is a derivative of one, or both, of the above mentioned titles. The coach is often the main character, while the lesser characters work out their problems (typically after a crushing first-game loss) and come together as a team, peaking at the ‘big game’ finale, where they win every time (another irony considering the source films).
Teen detention camp probation officer Sean Porter (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), is greatly distressed about the failure of his program to reform kids. Some who are released end up dead, while most go back to jail. It’s then he comes up with a radical idea: form the kids into a football team in an effort to teach discipline, self respect, and teamwork. At first his plan is chaotic, but slowly the players begin to appreciate being a part of something better than their respective gangs and offenses that previously defined who they are. After being integrated into the local high school football schedule, can they really prove they are a team by winning games?
Gridiron Gang sticks very close to the Bad News Bears model, only it wants to be more of a serious commentary (and not a satire) about how literal teamwork can reform a kid, teaching him real values and pride. It’s a great idea for a movie, based on the real Sean Porter.
Like the far superior Hoosiers (1986), or the more recent Miracle (2004), the coach of the story is the main focus, and must draw us in to make us care. Unfortunately, Johnson (Doom) is not Gene Hackman or Kurt Russell. He is an imposing figure, and definitely has screen presence, but his lack of acting chops is painfully obvious and a detriment to the story. He comes across as very wooden (or stone-faced, if you must push me), emoting as if the script was dictating “look intimidating here” or “laugh here” and even “cry now”. It all feels very robotic, and unnatural to the hilt.
Something else that drove me nuts was director Phil Joanou’s (Heaven’s Prisoners) decision to shoot the whole movie in a hyperactive jittery/zoomy “documentary style” which is supposed to add to the “grittiness” of the piece. It’s a very distracting and obnoxious choice that is robbed of any power it may have had due to it’s overuse.
The movie does have some effective scenes that should be mentioned, mostly due to the supporting cast. I liked the bonding between two rival gang members (Jade Yorker and David V. Thomas) who become friends due to their teamwork and desire to become something other than a statistic. I also like the touching scene with inmate Kenny Bates (Trever O'Brien) who says he wants to succeed on the team because “I just want my mom to love me.”
During the end credits we see actual documentary footage of the real Sean Porter coaching his boys. It’s very inspiring, and could have been the source material for a great film. Too bad we got this one instead.