Saturday, 13 January 2007

Gridiron Gang (2006)

Last chance to catch The Rock before his Samoan genes turn him into The Boulder

Dwayne Johnson used to be the world’s best wrestler and most impressive actor who got his own spinoff feature film out of a CGI bit part in a kid’s horror movie (The Mummy), but time is running out for The Rock. It’s a simple matter of biology, really. Like most Samoan men, Johnson has a huge physique that will slowly grow... sideways, and muscles that will melt into fat. His male relatives, all fellow wrestlers (including Yokozuna), are all known for starting their careers are well-built athletes and ending them as morbidly obese ex-wrestlers. So as The Rock approaches his mid-thirties, it is understandable that he covers more of himself, and moves into more dramatic roles.

The Rock couldn’t have made a better choice with Gridiron Gang. It’s about a juvenile correction facility officer who starts an American football team for his young charges, most of whom are barely in their teens. Sean Porter (The Rock) realises that the recidivism rate for juvenile detainees all over the country are depressingly high: the kids will just return to their gangs and lives of crime and violence. They might lose their lives in a silly gangfight, or return to juvenile detention centres and jails shorter are their release. And the depressed Porter cares enough to know that he has to give his charges back their self-respect and confidence, take away their depressed cynicism – and what better way to achieve that than press ganging them into a football team? Of course, he’d have to convince other college teams to play against them, and also motivate his players to keep their gang rivalries out of the team – but it’s all part of the job.

Now, this is a football movie. One can’t actually demand to see something completely new and creative in a genre film; that’s not how it works. One could however judge a genre film on its quality and how far it rearranges familiar elements to produce something novel or superior compared to other entries to the genre. There aren’t many realistic sports movies (aside from the highly observant Friday Night Lights), and Gridiron Gang leapfrogs over many of them by focusing on juvenile prisoners and gang members, as well as their inner-city families. There’s not much sentimentalising or sugar-coating of how prison life works, and I’m quite pleased that The Rock’s Eyebrow didn’t star in this movie. In fact, this movie shows that The Rock was dreadfully miscast as an action hero type in his earlier films. Starting out as a college football player certainly has prepared Dwayne Johnson to play the role of a coach convincingly enough.

You may be a little puzzled at how over the top Sean Porter comes off, even if he is trying to motivate his charges from their low self-esteem, cynicism, or disillusionment in society. Surprisingly, it isn’t because of a bad script, but because this is very closely based on a real-life story, and the original coach/prison officer (he went on to run an annual football programme at the juvenile prison after the success of the first batch) really spoke all those corny lines to his charges – documentary footage of which you can watch as the end credits roll, by the way. One wishes that the scriptwriters had taken more liberty in their script, in this respect. At the same time, it is only through the end credits that we discover that the first football team, whose formation and tribulations are chronicled in this movie, wasn’t quite a rehabilitative success. One would have expected the scriptwriters to give an indication of this in the movie itself, since they apparently wanted to make it as close to actual events as possible.

This minor issue aside, Gridiron Gang is not a bad choice for a weekend DVD, and if you’re a fan of inspirational sports movies. The Rock, this time round, comes as a bonus!

First published at incinemas on 18 January 2007

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