Combustible Celluloid
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With: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Xzibit, Danny Martinez, Maurice McRae, Mo, Trever O'Brien, Six Reasons, Brandon Smith, Jade Yorker, Robert Zepeda, Michael J. Pagan, Kevin Dunn, Leon Rippy
Written by: Jeff Maguire, based on the documentary film by Jac Flanders and Lee Stanley
Directed by: Phil Joanou
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some startling scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language
Running Time: 120
Date: 03/18/2013

Gridiron Gang (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Schlock and Tackle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Phil Joanou's Gridiron Gang is another one of those based-on-a-true story movies that seems to demand a certain amount of reverence. Even if the movie stinks, the story it chronicles deserves a great deal of respect. But whatever points Gridiron Gang earns for its dedication, it loses again in execution.

Still, it does have one unique factor: it may be the only feature film that's a remake of a documentary. Let's hope this trend does not continue; just imagine how dreadful an earnest, fictionalized version of Murderball would be. Or a cute, computer-animated March of the Penguins.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Gridiron Gang, and holds the movie together, as Sean Porter, a counselor at a tough teen detention center. Appalled by the fact that 75% of the kids who pass through the center will eventually do so again, Porter comes up with a plan. He'll organize a football team to teach kids skills, as well as teamwork, camaraderie and confidence.

Johnson (who once played football at the University of Florida) jumps at this opportunity to expand his range and break out of the Stallone-Schwarzenegger action movie pigeonhole quagmire. He channels the real Porter, getting angry, yelling until hoarse and even crying.

Rapper-turned-actor Xzibit (Derailed) plays Malcolm Moore, Porter's second-in-command, without much to do.

Of course, the team is packed with a slew of movie-ready personalities from the angry gang-banger with a God-given talent for the game to the fat kid who doesn't have enough heart to keep trying and the white kid who only wants his mom to love him. Besides keeping these players in order, Porter must also contend with a batch of bureaucrats who don't believe in him, as well as trying to track down other teams willing to play a bunch of muggers, robbers and killers.

Director Joanou rushes through the material, attempting to do justice to too many characters and juggle too many subplots to really explore any of them. Our players make the leap from scowling outsiders to a bonded, unified team far too quickly. Even when the director stops for an exciting game, he shakes and rattles his camera, chopping up the action and failing to achieve a meaningful pace.

The biggest problem here is that this material -- social misfits redeemed by football -- was already covered so well in Robert Aldrich's brilliant 1974 comedy The Longest Yard, remade in 2005 with less satisfying results. Likewise The Bad News Bears (1976), also remade in 2005 with less satisfying results, did so with younger kids and baseball. It's telling that those films were comedies; that was the easiest and smartest way around the sentimental pitfalls that naturally occur here. Laughter leads easily to cheers, but the pent-up anger of the lost youths in Gridiron Gang points toward tears. And it takes a gentler touch than Joanou's to properly handle four-hanky material.

Director Joanou, who showed a promising start back in the 1980s with films like Three O'Clock High, U2: Rattle and Hum and State of Grace, probably sensed the Hollywood-ness of this material, so he includes clips from the actual 1993 documentary during the end credits. Believe it or not, the real-life footage is just as sappy as the fiction film, and many scenes are adapted line-for-line.

Similarly, when I reviewed Black Hawk Down back in 2001, I complained about its phony-sounding dialogue, even though it had been based on a non-fiction book. I later received e-mails from several soldiers, informing me that, indeed, when men in war are under stress, they actually do begin talking like John Wayne movies. That's a fascinating, and frightening idea, and one that probably occurred too late to the filmmakers behind Gridiron Gang. (Although Zhang Yimou explores this ever so slightly in his new film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.)

It's clear that Joanou, Johnson and the others behind the film would like to use Gridiron Gang to influence and inspire a generation of lost youth. Just imagine if they had been clever enough to combine the reality and the fantasy, to mix fact and fiction, and achieve something startling and stimulating. Instead, they've fumbled with the same old play.

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