The Longest Yawn
Given his training ground — not the Actors Studio but the World Wrestling Federation — the player who bills himself these days as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sounds a bit, well, bogus when he makes speeches about the differences between winning and losing. But that’s exactly what he does through most of Gridiron Gang, a well-meant trifle about an idealistic corrections officer who starts up a football team at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. Director Phil Joanou’s meaning seems clear enough: societally endorsed rage, governed by the 15-yard personal-foul penalty, is preferable to the freelance rage of the streets.
That this huge, indigestible sports-movie platitude is based on what Hollywood always likes to call a “true story” makes little difference. True, false or fudged, Gang massages and manipulates us with a fervor bordering on shamelessness. A disclaimer in the final credits reads: “Some characters and incidents are fictional.” We can just imagine.
Johnson’s fictionalized character, Sean Porter, seeks to combine the playbooks of Vince Lombardi, Dirty Harry and Mother Teresa — the football coach as tough-love rebel and no-nonsense slavedriver — and if the mixture doesn’t quite come off, at least Johnson boasts some credentials here, too. Before manufacturing his theatrical feud with Austin, Johnson was a 295-pound defensive end for the University of Miami (where he studied criminal justice) and, before a shoulder injury laid him low, Doug Flutie’s teammate in the Canadian Football League.
Frustrated in his work as a youth counselor at hard-nosed Camp Kilpatrick, Porter has the usual suggestion for the warden: “Let’s try the impossible.” In this context, impossible means slapping together a football team from a collection of belligerent gangbangers, lumbering fat boys and sweetly demented crack dealers. You can hear Coach Porter’s uplifting slogans coming a mile away.
The progress of the Mustangs’ season holds no surprises: raw and disorganized, they lose game one to a sharp high school team, get over grave doubt and infighting closer loss on their second Saturday, then reel off eight straight wins. Because they’ve become a family. Because football builds character. And because Coach Porter is a great guy. Gridiron Gang doesn’t go so far as to insist that the game transforms these kids into saints — some of them, we are told, will trade their Friday night lights back for a Saturday Night Special — but Joanou and screenwriter Jeff Maguire are not big on ambiguity. Here we have inspiration, the Charging Double-Leg Spinebuster of football-coach hero stories. If you’re not in the mood for that, you can damn well go grab some bench and shut the hell up.