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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Gridiron Gang

Imagine my surprise when I dropped in to the Essex Cinemas on Friday afternoon to check out the latest retread of every other sports movie ever made, Gridiron Gang, and I actually found people had come willingly to see this movie! Now, there’s nothing wrong with Gridiron Gang, mind you, but the only thing that makes this different from a dozen other ‘young-hooligans-learn-some self-respect’ movies is that this one stars Dwayne Johnson, better known as The Rock.

I’m not sure why, but I do quite like The Rock. He seems like a pleasant enough fellow, and he has a great smile (shout out to the dental professionals behind those veneers!). He has beautiful eyes and is easy on those of his audience. The only flaw I can see in The Roc
k is that his name aptly describes the caliber of his acting ability to date. I’ve seen pebbles on the beach that could tell a tale with more expressiveness than The Rock unless he is kicking butt as in his earlier movies like Walking Tall and Doom. Here, though, he surprises, as a gentle giant of a man, a social worker of all things, in charge of counseling a dormitory full of naughty boys under his guidance at the Kilpatrick Juvenile Detention Center in Los Angeles. These “angels” are all incarcerated for violent crimes, mostly gang related, and it is The Rock, playing real life counselor Sean Porter, who comes up with the idea to organize the boys into a football team as a way to teach these toughs how to work as a team, how to use their time productively, and, hopefully, how to appreciate themselves as more than the “losers” they think they are.

I’ll bet you can guess how this is going to turn out, but it really isn’t nearly as important to the picture
as the journey to manhood these young men take under Porter’s wing, along with Xzibit (Derailed) as his nearly silent sidekick and co-coach on the unit. It’s really a pity that Xzibit isn’t given more to do because he has a charisma and real screen presence in every scene he is in, which may explain The Rock’s reticence to share the spotlight. Still, the two of them together make a formidable team, and their management of the Kilpatrick Mustangs is what gives the film its’ most entertaining moments.

Newcomer Jade Yorker is particularly memorable as Willie Weathers, a teen who is incarcerated after getting involved in a gang war that left his friend dead, a scene shown in flashback in graphic detail. We see that Willie is no innocent, though, in this case, he really was a victim of circumstance, which I suppose is meant to excuse his other criminal behavior and make him an antihero of some sort. He still seemed like a weasely bad boy to me, but he is meant to give us someone to root for and he’s as good as anyone. He even has a personal cheerleader, Danyelle Robbins (Jurnee Smollett; Roll Bounce), as the college-going good girl, whose father owns a dry cleaning establishment and frets about his daughter being involved with a gangbanger from the streets. That is a legitimate question, of course, and one that is never truly answered. Considering how driven to success Danyelle is it seems odd that the “true love” of her young life is Willie, who has nothing to offer her intellectually or otherwise. All I can figure is he must really rock the house in bed because when it comes to personality, charm, wit, and earning potential he is about as attractive as Gary Busey these days

Aside from Willie’s angst, other inmates have their problems that the movie is bound to touch on
before the finale. There is Kenny Bates, played by Trever O’Brien (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), who is devastated by his mother’s rejection, (Mo; Dirty), who is so morbidly obese that he can not compete on the team even though he wishes to be a part of the Mustangs, and Junior Palaita (debuting Setu Taase) who is broken-hearted at being away from his two-year old son. This sub-plot with Junior is the only one that bothered me, mostly because this is supposed to be a facility for juvenile offenders and Taase looks like the world’s oldest teenager, beating out Dick Clark by a hair. We’re supposed to believe this guy fathered a child at ~ what? ~ fifteen or sixteen, and yet he looks like he could be The Rock’s older brother. This begs the question… can a person get a life sentence in juvie and end up staying there forever?

Still, the movie is an insightful social commentary on the ravages of gang warfare and the f
oolishness of kids killing kids for no other reason than that they live a few blocks apart. It may be hard to imagine this is the reality of urban areas today while we live in a rural community like ours, but it is a frightening truth so many young people face each day in our larger cities, that the only way to resolve disagreements is with gun violence, and it appears that just the beginnings of this mentality have shown themselves in our own Essex Junction in the past month. We can only pray it does not spread.

Gridiron Gang has an obvious message to deliver, but it is delivered without high-powered pressure. The Rock’s smile alone would diffuse any attempts at hard sell, and instead Gridiron Gang makes its’ point through its great football footage and the locker room scenes (not that kind, you nasty-minded people!) where the players voice their own hopes and disappointments with their performances on the field. The plays of the games will leave you jumping out of your seats. I did, and I don’t even understand how football works yet alone is scored, but I understood the bone-crunching sounds and rallying pictures of the Mustangs in their fight to the play-off title and wanted the guys to win no matter what.

Naturally, from their first game, against a prep school team
called the Panthers, it was inevitable (clichéd?) that the team would run into one obnoxious white player who would unsparingly use the “N” word to rile up the almost exclusively African American Mustang team. I’ll bet you don’t have to be Kreskin to channel who is going to get his pale derriere knocked to the curb in the BIG GAME that will determine the championship and that we, the audience, will be cheering with enthusiasm when he learns that his words can hurt (him especially when a 260 lbs fullback plows full-on into his spleen).

Yes, this may be a by-the-numbers sports drama, but it is well-done, and even without a lot of character development The Rock somehow shows that he actually can act. He makes us come to care about these kids, dammit, and his many "You can do it" speeches don’t come off so much as being corny as they do inspirational.

To prove the point, the movie ends with a surprising interlude as the credits role. This is one time
you don’t want to jump up and run to the bathroom or out to the parking lot. Instead, stay and check out some great documentary clips of the real Sean Porter delivering many of the same exact speeches as The Rock uses in the movie itself. The real Sean is seen at work and on the football field and a half dozen or so of the Kilpatrick inmates played by actors in the movie are seen in their actual countenance, offering up their own words about the team, Coach Porter, and how the experience at Kilpatrick changed their lives.


If you liked Remember the Titans, Heart of the Game, and Invincible, you’re going to enjoy Gridiron Gang. It has its’ bloody moments, its’ “gritty realism” as they call these things on tv, and a whole lot of cussing, but it also has a whole lot of heart. And The Rock. What more could you ask for?

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