You’ve seen this movie before. It’s the inspiring sports saga, wherein the earnest-and-beleaguered team is moved to unlikely but inevitable greatness by the earnest-and-beleaguered coach. At once uplifting and banal, “based on a true story” and abjectly “Disneyfied,” the formula is also — apparently — endlessly profitable.
This sans-Bruckheimer version is based on a 1993 documentary (clips from that film, also called Gridiron Gang, play during the closing credits and suggest that Jeff Maguire’s script lifts heartfelt dialogue directly from the original speakers). It’s also somewhat invigorated by the Rock, whose mighty charisma yet again buoys screen (here, he’s not even so daunting as he was recently on Punk’d, when he considered punching Ashton’s minion). As Sean, manager of a youth detention facility, he’s unleashed from eth action-heroic mode, and reveals a dramatic capacity that pretty much outstrips his material. That is, he makes the sappy stuff bearable, and helps the several young performers around him to look like veterans.
During the first few moments of Gridiron Gang, Sean appears as a specter of earnest moral resilience amid clanging doors and stark, forbidding spaces. It’s nighttime at Camp Kilpatrick, and Sean pays a visit to Roger (Michael J. Pagan), in solitary for assaulting a fellow inmate. When the boy explains his action, “He dissed my hood!”, it’s clear to Sean and you that his time inside hasn’t done much to change the years of conditioning he’s had on the street. Still, Sean tries again, urging Roger not to revert to bad habits when he is released the next day.
No sooner does Sean make his speech than the film cuts to Roger’s next-day quandary. Back on the street, he’s pressed by a friend to participate in a mission and can’t not take the offered gun. He stuffs it into his pants just before a car swings around the corner, accompanied by foreboding soundtrack. Roger’s murder is rendered in surprisingly aggressive imagery: the blam-blam-blam of the gunfire is exceedingly loud and close-ups show bloody body parts to be dark and oozy. It’s not the usual start for an inspiring sports movie, a genre best known for its training montages and golden-glowy lighting. Gridiron Gang includes all that too, but underlines, at least at first, that the “true story” sources include cruel violence as well as uplift.
Sean knows from violence too, owing to an urban, working-class childhood with a single mom (she was doting and wonderful, but his father was a brute, before he went absent). And he sees that the system of juvenile detention is only sending kids through relentless cycles of violence — in the streets, their homes, and their juvie blocks. Roger’s death inspires Sean’s action, and the rest of the movie. Sean decides to organize the violence into football.
Though his boss Paul (Leon Rippy) is skeptical about spending his scant state-issued funds on such a body-slamming venture (“The whole system,” he notes, “is designed to make them avoid contact”), Sean and his whistle-wearing assistant Malcolm (Xzibit) assemble a team of hard cases, including Roger’s vengeful cousin Willie (Jade Yorker). Because the kids believe in defending turf and identity, Sean gives them a new way to do it. “This is your hood now,” he asserts, the kids gazing up at him with a mix of doubt and hope as Trevor Rabin’s score soars predictably. Though they have been “losers” (Sean points to the evidence of their incarceration), they will be “winners.”
While Sean and Malcolm make the rounds of nearby high schools in order to find a league that will accept their squad of “gangsters” into its schedule (not to mention a team’s set of Underarmour gear), the boys engage in the usual montagey drills, learning to tackle, catch, and pass. At the end of each session, Coach orders his Mustangs to “take a knee,” whereupon he describes their new mission, to work as a team, appreciate the history of organized sports, and let go of their “ancient” wars from back home. Just so, when sworn enemies Willie and Kelvin (David V. Thomas) repeatedly bump up against one another, Sean tries to keep them apart but also working together (Kelvin blocks for wide receiver Willie). All the kids have history, even the skinny waterboy Bug (Brandon Mychal Smith). When Sean laughs, “That’s a funny kid, he’s always smiling,” Malcolm cuts the hilarity short: “I wonder if he was smiling when he stabbed that old lady for her purse.”
Such occasional injections of “harsh reality” make Gridiron Gang slightly more complicated than the usual inspiring sports movie, though just slightly. Most often, the formula is overwhelming: a few boys are briefly distracted by the usual obstacles — Willie likes a girl, Danyelle (Jurnee Smollett), whose father disapproves; Kenny (Trever O’Brien) is rejected by his mom on visiting day; super-enthusiastic Junior (Setu Tasse) suffers a season-ending injury during practice.
And the kids aren’t the only ones in character-delineating pain. In between practices and games, Sean visits with his ailing mom (L. Scott Caldwell), who sagely advises him on his various travails with the team: “You couldn’t expect them to work as hard as you did,” she smiles, remembering. “You were a star. I always had faith in you.” Sean, for his part, surely appreciates his good fortune: “You’re my mom. That’s your job.”
Sean’s job is slightly different: in order to focus his players’ various rages away from one another, he points them at their opponents. And while the primary point of Gridiron Gang is to show the Mustangs’ coming together, it does so by providing them with an easy and familiar target, namely, a team of moneyed white kids. As in other versions of this movie, the system becomes embodied by these privileged, mostly anonymous rivals. When one of them (Artie Baxter) goes so far as to call Willie the n-word, his defeat on the field is both ensured and just. In this movie that you’ve seen before, football is literal and metaphorical, a fantasy of fairness and meritocracy, where hard workers will be “winners.”