Gridiron Gang (Columbia Pictures, PG-13)

A film like this can go wrong in so many ways. Somehow, though, this film gets everything right.



Jade Yorker stars in Gridiron Gang.

When it comes to sports films I am tough to please. Rudy was sappy, Hoosiers was dour, Slap Shot was too long, and The Natural was too unbelievable. I have one standard that I compare all sporting stories to: Friday Night Lights. So, with Gridiron Gang I wasn't expecting to be intrigued, moved, or invested. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when I was.

Based on actual events, Gridiron Gang is the story of juvenile facility officer Sean Porter (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) as he leads a group of detainees on the football field, in the hopes of helping them learn to lead crime-free lives once they're released.

A film like this can go wrong in so many ways. The motivational speeches can become grating. Characterizations can be cartoonish. Dialogue that makes an attempt at light humor can sink like a stone. Somehow, though, this film gets everything right.

The anchor of the film, fittingly, is The Rock. I don't believe any pro wrestler has gone on to a legitimate, longstanding career as an actor, but The Rock has a good shot at becoming the first. He has the physical presence to hold his own in any action film, of course, but he also has real emotional gravitas. We trust in Porter's desire to teach his motley crew how to live without gang banging, stealing cars, or selling drugs. We can see a tough, intelligent man who knows his kids well enough to choose the right ones for the gig.

All of the supporting actors are remarkably well cast. Of the handful of featured players, Willie (Jade Yorker) and Calvin (David Thomas) make the most impact. Each boy has a laundry list of obstacles to overcome, none the least of which is their involvement in rival gangs. Yorker and Thomas bring the requisite tough-guy posturing, but are subtle enough to let us see through to their characters' neglected and confused cores.

The dialogue here is also notable. Films with urban themes can often rely too much on slang and profanity for their characters, but Gridiron Gang doesn't make that mistake. The language can be rough at times, but is never so over the top that the audience either can't understand what's been said or wished that they hadn't. Everything has just the right amount of street or teen lingo to make the characters believable as troubled kids and their guardians.

I was completely impressed by the look of the film. Director Phil Joanou (probably best known for directing some of U2's music videos and their 1988 film Rattle and Hum) deftly handles action scenes as well as the expressive touchstones of the movie. He manages to imbue the entire film with a warmth that makes it easier to root for characters we might otherwise disdain. One instance of this occurs after two players resolve their contention on the field. They meet on the sidelines later and display their newfound sense of brotherhood in burnished tones, highlighted by the golden sun behind them.

The scenes on the gridiron were equally well done. The audience is treated to full-blown football action that still manages to keep us invested in each player's role on the field. A large part of the story deals with how these characters, most of whom have never played organized sports, develop their skills. Each scene of play lets us watch their growth without dealing in too many slow-motion, overwrought antics.

Now, any script based on heart-tugging real-life events has the possibility of veering into Lifetime movie-of-the-week territory. The idea of emotionally lost young men trying to right themselves may not be a revolutionary story, but Gridiron Gang takes such pleasing steps going through the narrative that it doesn't matter.

You might think, for example, that you can predict what's going to happen in the first few minutes, a harrowing introduction to the revenge-fueled world these boys come from, but you're probably wrong. And you'll love the filmmakers for surprising you.

Whether such scenes of urban strife are part of the true story or not doesn't matter: the audience will get the barriers the players face. We're made to hope, laugh, fight, and cry with them. Oh yes, I did cry. Now I have two sports movies on my list that actually made me feel something.

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