Yet another sports drama derived from a true story, Gridiron Gang bids for credibility by shoehorning the actual players and coaches into the final credit roll (see Glory Road, et al). The footage comes from the 1993 documentary film, of the same title, on which Gridiron Gang is based, but only has the effect of convincing us that we should seek out what appears to be a much more interesting film.
Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. "The Rock," plays former college-football star Sean Porter, the devoted coach of a football team made up of juvenile offenders incarcerated at L.A. County's Camp Kilpatrick. They start out rough, but learn the value of team play and self-pride. Some break the cycles of gang violence and recidivism; some don't. The end.
Gridiron Gang quickly squanders the handheld, tough-talking grit of its opening scenes and succumbs to waves of cliché. Screenwriter Jeff Maguire and director Phil Joanou (Heaven's Prisoners) convincingly portray the path of gangbangers into "the system," but it's pure hokum from there as Porter—inspired by his dying mother and "you'll amount to nothing" deadbeat dad—insists that the kids become Mustangs or, in other words, strong, proud individuals.
"Let's try the impossible," he tells his skeptical co-workers. "The possible just ain't working." Porter must hustle for everything: a schedule of competitors, equipment, and even the privilege of the program itself. In exchange, Porter offers all he has to the kids, serving as much as counselor as coach. Johnson gives the part his authoritative all, but he doesn't have the depth of ability to elevate a sappy script that regularly calls for up-choking.
Joanou settles for standard manipulations: speechifying, fun-lovin' montages, an overly indicative underscore that crescendos on cue, and slo-mo-heavy gameplay scenes that never rise above the adequate. The film also panders, with triumphancy assured over race-baiting opponents (must the other team be bad to feel the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat?).
The film's simplicity and locker-room humor may make it attractive and useful to at-risk youth, and for that, we can be grateful. Maguire gets in one appropriately edgy line, though it's played for a laugh; Porter says of the fast-talking comic-relief waterboy, "I wonder if he was smiling when he stabbed that old lady for her purse." The end-title acknowledgment that some of the players failed to overcome socioeconomic depair turns triumph bittersweet, but can't save Gridiron Gang from its norm of hackneyed predictability.