The Gridiron Gang

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The recipe is familiar: Mix a group of troubled teens with a hardnosed-but-softhearted football coach. Add a few heart-stopping football plays, sprinkle liberally with swelling orchestral music and simmer until redemption is achieved. Voila: box office gold (hopefully).

The problem with Gridiron Gang isn’t that you see every chest-thumping, lump-in-your-throat moment coming from a mile away, it’s that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson never actually gets to suit up and kick some serious ass. He doesn’t even get a chance to do the eyebrow thing, for cryin’ out loud.

Instead he plays it straight as Sean Porter, a real-life juvenile detention officer, who, frustrated by his facility’s failing effort to curb gang violence, decides that the football field is the place to teach these hardcore teens about responsibility and self-respect. A former college star, Sean understands that participating in team sports, according to Hollywood, is the path to personal salvation. He furrows his brow with concern, offers soft-spoken words of encouragement, and wrestles with his own daddy issues. He even manages to squeeze out a few tears.

Forgiveness is allowed should you find yourself wishing someone would hand "The Rock" a gun and tack on a few spectacular explosions.

Adapted from a 1992 Emmy-award winning made-for-TV documentary, director Phil Joanou’s inspirational sports flick is pretty much what you’d expect: bad kids meet tough-guy father figure who gives them a chance when everyone else has given up. There’s Willie the gangbanger (Jade Yorker) who shot his abusive stepfather, Junior the prison yard heavy (Setu Taase) who longs to be a good father to his son, and Kelvin (David V. Thomas), the gang rival who tests Willie’s ability to leave the code of the streets behind. Needless to say, this ragtag thug squad eventually turns into a winning team … but not before suffering a few character-building defeats.

Screenwriters Jeff Maguire and Jac Flanders program their tale to hit all the requisite dramatic beats, never once deviating from the genre’s formula — paper-thin characters, trite dialogue and too-tidy resolutions. All the film needs is a blinking APPLAUSE sign at the end. Oddly enough, the producers appear to recognize the overwhelming banality of their story and justify the clichés with documentary footage during the final credits. "See, they really did say those things!"

Despite all this, Joanou, a talented director, injects Gridiron Gang with some surprising grit and well-executed moments — a drive-by shooting, scrimmages on the field. Joanou gets your heart rate climbing, even when you know where the story’s going.

But filmmaking prowess can’t overcome leaden melodrama. Though the dialogue may be lifted from real-life incidents, coming from Johnson they just sound stupid. Part of the problem is that the he overflows with such bald-faced sentimentality that every line sounds like a Hallmark card. Though the wrestler-turned-actor has charm to spare, here he’s miscast. He’s a man of action and humor, not a motivational speaker. You can see the big guy trying real hard to prove his acting ability and in a few scenes he almost pulls it off. But at 34, he just doesn’t have the weathered gravitas of a Billy Bob Thornton, Kurt Russell or Denzel Washington.

Gridiron Gang never actually crosses the line into bad cinema — Joanou’s too good a director and his cast is authentic enough to sell even the most artificial exchanges — but cineastes will wince with each brazen cliché while fighting off the lump that’s forming in their throat. The rest of the audience will fall hook, line and sinker for Hollywood’s shameless shtick and end up cheering for the Rock and his kids. Hell, a few grown men might even cry.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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