Gridiron Gang has the misfortune of opening after Invincible, another real-life football tale, but one that can also boast the Disney brand. In the wrong hands, the genre's cycle of hardship-inspiration-uplift can seem rote, and it's difficult for deserving but basically similar stories to stand out from the competition. Despite the occasional mixed message and overwrought moment, Gridiron Gang is a sincere, moving film about a worthwhile subject, a California program that uses football to help troubled youth.
Opening with the sobering statistic that 120,000 juveniles are in detention, the film then details life at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile-detention center in the suburbs of Los Angeles. With recidivism rates hovering near 75%, and homes afflicted by violent crime, the inmates have little to live for. Probation officer Sean Porter (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) realizes that football could discipline his charges while providing physical release. He overcomes the skepticism of colleagues, finesses funding for uniforms and equipment, and persuades area schools to let what would become the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs participate in the Camino Real high school football league.
Training is too tough for some wards; others have trouble adjusting to Porter's demands. Junior (Setu Taase), a team leader, suffers a serious injury. Gang rivalries disrupt practices. The first game starts well, but the Mustangs end up losing badly. An angry tirade by Porter further alienates the players. But against the odds, the team begins to gel. The Mustangs start winning, drawing crowds and media attention. But gang violence could end the season before the playoffs.
Director Phil Joanou can't quite disguise the fact that this is a pretty familiar story (or that he's working with a relatively small budget). The film's nervous, edgy style, marked by zoom lenses and quick cuts, works best in the football scenes, which hit harder than most thanks in part to Allan Graf's expert choreography. Other scenes can feel too hyped up, especially when screenwriter Jeff Maguire delves into the home lives of the teen inmates.
With his background in college football and professional wrestling, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson rarely gets the respect he deserves as an actor. His Sean Porter is tough, even harsh, but also prone to self-doubt. It's a steady, assured performance, and Johnson brings an honesty and commitment to his role that is mirrored by the rest of the cast. As feuding gang members, Jade Yorker and David Thomas are standouts among the younger actors.
Gridiron Gang has one climax too many, and the film as a whole would work better trimmed by about a half-hour. Jaded viewers may dismiss the script's upbeat message, but there's no doubting the passion the cast and crew have brought to the project. If some issues are glossed over, it's still remarkable that something positive can be said about what is usually considered an intractable problem. The closing credits contain footage from a 1993 documentary, also called Gridiron Gang, that was directed by Lee Stanley, one of the producers here. The clips of Sean Porter show just how well The Rock captures the coach's spirit.