From Stand and Deliver to Lean On Me (both 1989) to Music of the Heart (1999) to this year’s Take the Lead, films depicting today’s disenfranchised youth triumphing over adversity have inadvertently become a storytelling staple and something of a cliché.
The plots for these films usually revolve around a compassionate adult, who may or may not have been a troubled teen themselves, who are motivated to do something-anything-to save a group of ragamuffin kids from dead-end lives, both figuratively and literally. And, as is the case with most of these life-affirming films such as the ones mentioned, they are almost always based on or inspired by true stories.
In Gridiron Gang, a surprisingly effective film of the inspirational variety, pro-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and rap star Xzibit, play two real-life Los Angeles probation officers who, in 1990, established a competitive football team comprised of teenage delinquents under their watch at Camp Kilpatrick, the Los Angeles juvenile detention center where they worked, despite mountains of bureaucratic red tape and bad blood amongst some of their kids.
Probation officer Sean Porter (Johnson) is increasingly alarmed by the high rate of recidivism (over 75%) among the young men under his watch at Camp Kilpatrick. With the assistance of colleague Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), Porter brainstorms and eventually settles on the idea of starting a football team at the camp.
As a troubled youth, Porter was introduced to football, as a means to indoctrinate the virtues of discipline, self-respect, and personal responsibility into his own life. Porter and Moore figure that if it worked for him, it’s worth trying the same approach with their current crop of residents.
Some of first members of the team, coined the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs, are naturals and are eager to play, like Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker), a born runner mourning the loss of a cousin who was a previous resident at the camp, and Kenny Bates (Trevor O’Brien), one of the few white guys there who is a promising wide receiver. Along for the ride are fellow juvies, linebacker Calvin Owens (David Thomas) whose ongoing beef with Willie is gang-related, lineman Junior Palaita (Setu Taase), a 17-year-old Samoan and father of a two-year-old boy, not to mention team quarterback Leon Hayes (Mo).
Porter and Moore have four short weeks to get the Mustangs into fighting shape to take on the regional champs, the Barrington High Panthers, at the first of a ten game season. Underfunded and lacking the proper space to train, the boys overcome many an obstacle, including a potentially devastating loss to the team, to be prepared to enter the season ready to rumble.
Some people may have an issue with any film that asks moviegoers to root for criminals as Gridiron Gang does, yet director Phil Joanou (Final Analysis and Heaven’s Prisoners) and writer Jeff Maguire (In The Line of Fire and Timeline) have managed to craft a compelling, and dare I say, truly inspiring film about good kids who made bad choices, some of whom see the error of their ways. What makes the film so refreshing from the norm is that it never professes to contain clean cut answers and solutions to all of society’s ills. Some of these kids see and fulfill their potential, some despite the best of intentions fall by the wayside.
The entire film; particularly the kinetic football sequences, is a visual treat thanks to the solid work of editor Joel Negron and cinematographer Jeff Cutter who give the film an appropriately gritty, documentary-like vibe.
And, if there was ever a role that The Rock was born to play he’s found it here. Not only does he physically resemble the real-life Sean Porter, there are times in the film where he completely disappears into the role. In his previous films, The Rock was essentially playing himself placed in that set of circumstances and since his screen persona is so winning, that was perfectly fine. It’s here in Gridiron Gang that he makes his transition from wrestler-turned-actor to just plain ’ol actor. And after a few small film roles in XXX: State of the Union and Derailed, co-star Xzibit lives up to his stage name by exhibiting some discernible acting talent. While he doesn’t resemble his real-life counterpart as The Rock does, Xzibit’s laid back, no-frills performance is the ideal compliment to The Rock’s revelatory turn as Porter.
Be sure to stay during the end credits to watch footage from the 1993 Emmy Award-winning documentary of the same name that inspired the film.