High school, college, amateur, professional, or prison--it doesn't matter. Sports sagas seem to have the same narrative arc and the same focus on an individual or team somehow surmounting obstacles to distinguish themselves on the field, arena, rink, or what-have-you. It's this sense of sameness that keeps most sports movies in the good-but-not-great range, with the ones that rise above it figuring out how to throw another element or two into the mix.
That doesn't really happen with "Gridiron Gang," a solid-enough film starring The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) as juvenile probation officer Sean Porter, a real-life hero who decided to make a difference by getting his 15- to 17-year-old detainees to play organized football. The goal was to get them to turn their "loser" lives into a winning attitude that they could take with them when they left the Camp Kilpatrick facility. A secondary goal was to break the hold that gangs had on many of the youths, most of whom were in juvenile detention for involvement in serious crimes, including murder.
Sometimes, though, the "truth" can be as constricting as a life sentence. At the end of the film there are clips from the award-winning documentary of the same name, and the exact lines we heard coming out of The Rock's mouth sound somehow different coming from the real officer/coach. It's almost as if writer Jeff Maguire and director Phil Joanou were so intent on staying faithful to the truth that they neglected to shape the part of the hero so that it fit The Rock comfortably. There's a stiffness to the real lines, made more noticeable, perhaps, by a succession of sports clichés that come out of his mouth every time the coach speaks. Maybe the real coach did speak in clichés, but can't a director use creative license to craft language that reveals more about character and is more pleasing to the ear?
Even the decision to start the delinquents' football season with a huge loss at Barrington High School and end it with a semi-final playoff win over Barrington seems the wrong call. It gives the film a slick Hollywood rags-to-riches structure and a book-end closure, so that any movie-lover can see the ending coming a mile away. Why not end with the final game loss? If these young criminals have learned anything at all from their coach, it should be that winning isn't everything (and no, Vince Lombardi, it's not the only thing either). It's how you handle the errant throws that life tosses your way that reveals how much of a winner or loser you are. But I guess America isn't big on "We're Number Two!" films. Too bad, because this might have felt more authentic and, yes, more inspirational had the whole story been dramatized.
As it is, "Gridiron Gang," while a runaway box-office hit, runs a pretty average course. The story is grounded, first, in shots of the L.A. gang world in which many of these kids live. We're introduced to Roger Weathers (Michael J. Pagon), a likable enough kid who's been toughened up by his gang membership and who's now prone to violent attacks against perceived rivals. But Roger is the sacrificial lamb in "Gridiron Gang," the character whose death on the streets at the hands of a rival gang will bother Porter enough to where he searches for a way to stop the circle of violence. Over 120,000 serious juvenile offenders are held in detention centers every year, and the sad stat is that 75 percent of those end up back in juvenile detention or prison. After Porter sees high school football players practicing, the former gridiron star decides to start a prison team. First step: convince the camp director (Leon Rippy) and prison board to let him try, and to cough up the $10,000 it will take for start-up costs. Uniforms and practice equipment aren't cheap. Then he has to find a high school coach willing to play the Kilpatrick Mustangs and to help him get the team into a league schedule. That happens fairly quickly, as, come to think of it, happens with most obstacles in this film. There just isn't much struggle, and that works against the dramatic structure. Even the game situations don't have the drama you think they should.
There's also the usual assortment of suspects on the team: the fat guy who can't cut it, the goofy Urkel-like nerd who serves as water boy, the token white guy who tries to fit in, the big tough guy (Setu Taase) who has to earn a place on the team but then gets injured, and the kid with star potential who just happens to be Roger Weathers' cousin, Willie (Jade Yorker). The quarterback made five times his coach's salary dealing crack (which is par for the NFL, minus the crack). And collectively, they're not the sharpest knives in the box. Most of them can't even spell "Mustangs," and as The Rock says, "Teamwork to them is four homeboys workin' together to rob a liquor store." So, that's the challenge, but you walk away from the film shaking your head and wondering why it wasn't more compelling.
It's Yorker and Jurnee Smollett, as his girlfriend Danyelle, who are actually among the more interesting characters. You want them to communicate, you want him to get his act together so he can be with her, and you want her and her protective father to give him a chance. Much more than the gang rival on the team (David V. Thomas) that he keeps glaring at, it gives the story some texture, at least--but not enough. The big picture is that "Gridiron Gang" is as typical as sports films get. It's good, but not great.
For a standard disc, the picture quality is excellent. I just watched the Blu-ray version, and the big difference lies in long shots. Close-ups, it's hard to tell much difference, but you can really see a loss of detail when the camera pulls back. The original source master has some graininess on soft-focus backgrounds, and several scenes set on the practice field with heat rising from the turf lend to more fuzziness in the air and backgrounds. So the picture quality is, overall, darned close to the Blu-ray release, though as with the Blu-ray, the colors fall just short, to my eye, of seeming saturated enough in some scenes. Mastered in High Definition, "Gridiron Gang" is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen.
It's in sound where you notice a big drop-off from the Blu-ray version. There's a lot less vitality to the English Dolby Digital 5.1 than there was with uncompressed PCM audio. What I noticed, too, was that there seemed to be less sound enveloping the room. You could more easily pinpoint it as coming from this speaker or that. Though the Blu-ray had nine subtitle options, this one only offers subtitles in English and French. A secondary audio option is French Dolby 2.0 Surround, though that's even flatter than the 5.1. Overall, it's okay, but nothing compared to HD audio.
A commentary with the writer and director is worth listening to, though I'd rather have a Sean Porter profile or an extended clip from the documentary than the Phil Joanou profile and multi-angle football scene that are included here. A handful of fairly substantial deleted scenes are included, and you learn why they were cut. Rounding out the extras are two short features on "'Gridiron Gang' Football Training" and "The Rock Takes the Field," which ought to satisfy your behind-the-scenes cravings. They're okay, but nothing to jump up and down on the sidelines about.
A little more focus on individual dramas would have helped this loser-to-winner sports film. Like those Olympic moments that focus on the small dramas behind the big drama--those little stories that make you appreciate the athlete's performances--more character development and would have helped "Gridiron Gang" considerably.