It used to be one of the more meaningful motion picture metaphors: sports as a microcosm of life. All throughout the early days of cinema, when motion and action were mandatory to keep audiences interested in the fledgling artform, through the glory days of classic studio system films, athletes and the games they play have provided the backdrop for discussions of courage, leadership, discipline and self-discovery. But in the post-modern era, all that has changed. Championing the underdog, rooting for the good guys, using competition as a moralizing mannerism to determine the superior from the sad has become the order of the day. Without some adversity to overcome, a last act challenge to rise up to, and a god-like leader who provides tough love and selfless motivation within a context of team and trying, the current sports film is lost. These are the clichéd confines that something like Gridiron Gang must break out of. Sadly, it can only embrace, not erase, the archetypes.
Sick and tired of the 75% recidivism rate among his charges, Youth Detention Officer Sean Porter proposes a radical solution – starting a football team. While his superiors scoff at first, Porter believes such an enterprise will teach these thugs discipline, heart and hope. He quickly gains the support of the inmates, many of which played sports before they were incarcerated. At first, it looks like the newly crowned Mustangs will only play against themselves. Many of Southern California's richest (and whitest) schools will not even consider a team made up of (minority) criminals playing against their students. Luckily, a Christian academy helps get the team some challengers, and before you know it, the Mustangs are part of the local athletic league. After an early defeat, Porter's bosses fear the boys will quit. But determination, and a coming together of divergent ethnic and gang affiliations, turns these one-time losers into certified winners. Thanks to Porter and his positive determination, these young men have gone from their previous problematic associations to membership in the Gridiron Gang.
It's tough to say what's wrong with Gridiron Gang. It could be the choice of material. What may have been amazing inside a documentary format (this film is based on a 1993 TV expose on the real life Camp Kirkpatrick) gets lost in the standard cinematic iconography – miscreant, if misjudged teens, tough if tender authority figures, a world which would prefer that delinquents not darken their pristine public school doorways and facilities. All throughout director Phil Joanou's attempt to bring the epic to what is merely exceptional, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Pimp My Ride rapper Xzibit use their calm, considered gravitas to show how strong male role models will turn even the most bang happy gang member into a somewhat decent person. Flaws are flung aside as a sort of superficial "NO Child Left Behind" mantra is maintained. It's just one of several very odd points that are offered throughout this two hour tale. Aside from a single comment about crack, drugs are never mentioned here. The opening crime centers on a stolen bike and domestic abuse. The murdering, thieving, assaulting and battering boys of Camp Kirkpatrick have their violent side consistently downplayed, while the main rival school they actually compete against is viewed as an overly Caucasian nest of bigots, assholes and psychopaths. During several of the film's excellent football sequences, our heroes take a hurting from white boys jacked up on testosterone and social superiority, tossing out slurs and slams all the while.
Handling the issue of race in such an underhanded manner is part of Gridiron Gang's problem. While the filmmakers might have seen it as a potential-PC issue (there are very few light skinned faced in this congested juvenile detention center), avoiding the potential fallout of a white player calling a black competitor the "N" word, or consistently using the word "boy" as part of their putdowns, seems shocking. The lack of a father figure may indeed be pushing them toward a life of crime, but being a member of a still oppressed minority can't be helping either. Similarly, the gang issue is swept under the rug via a simple showdown between Johnson (playing the real man responsible for the program, Sean Porter) and two of his most talented stars. After telling them that the feud between their warring street factions is so old that no one knows how it started, he brokers a truce by saying something similar to what Jimmy Volmer used to end the fighting between the South Park Crips and Bloods – "come on!". Sure, old loyalties and duties flare up now and again, but this is not the movie Joanou or screenwriter Jeff Maguire want to make. Instead, the movie's noble intentions are fused directly into the narrative, creating a part celebration, part social statement experience that frequently flounders. Interestingly enough, it succeeds on occasion as well.
It has to be mentioned that director Joanou is much better than this material. Watching Gridiron Gang is like experiencing Air Bud as crafted by Stanley Kubrick. There is just so much cinematic artistry to how Joanou uses his camera. It's a slow motion, highly stylized attempt at drawing out drama that works within the minor confines of the story. No matter how hard he tries – and he tries A LOT – Joanou can't eclipse the limits of his subject matter. When you boil it down to its basics, Gridiron Gang is about an experimental football program at a California youth detention center, not a grand statement about sports as mirror for real world responsibility. Thankfully, the actors here redeem the movie's meandering emotional core. Johnson is actually perfect for the part – he is stoic if slightly sentimental, able to command respect and shed the occasional tear without losing his well-maintained machismo. Xzibit, nothing more than a sensible sidekick, shows none of the overdone hip-hop pizzazz that frequently turns Pimp into a car crash joke. All the players are perfectly cast – something we learn once the final credits role and footage from the documentary confirms their status as real people – and even the ancillary figures (a girlfriend for one of the gang, the Rock's rationalizing mother) are filled out quite nicely.
It's just a shame that this film can't find something to say beyond "sports is good and not all kids are bad". Joanou, who was once considered an up and coming auteur in the world of cinema, will definitely enjoy the career bounce back his work here demands, but as for the rest of the participants, this seems like a professional non-issue. The Rock is still an actor on the rise, Xzibit will get more film work, the young cast will claim a break out star or two, and the real Sean Porter will benefit from having such a mainstream limelight focused on his efforts. Caught somewhere in the middle are two divergent elements – the truth of youth violence and the state of athletics on film. Gridiron Gang has no real ability to address either. In this film, crime is conditional and circumstantial, and the previous cinematic canon surrounding competition is just a pool to drink long and hard from. While never boring or uninteresting, Gridiron Gang ends up playing like a forced fairytale. Not even the sobering "where are they now" statements as part of the finally can keep us from feeling that fact has given way to the favor of fiction.
Again, it has to be said – Phil Joanou is a visually impressive filmmaker. His work here is amazing, and thanks to Sony's excellent transfer and image, the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is nearly perfect. During theatrical previews this past Summer, the film appeared to be awash in golds and greens, a by-now hackneyed approach to cool cat cinematography. But the visuals here are far more varied, using the California sun as a means of turning everything tan, attractive and bright. From his excellent framing to the brilliant handling of the sports sequences (nothing new, but very effective) this DVD is a triumph for Joanou. It makes the movie that much more cinematic.
Delivered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, the aural elements of Gridiron Gang are equally impressive. Some critics have complained that rock star Trevor Rabin's overly pompous soundtrack distracts from the film, but this reviewer would definitely disagree. A movie as mawkish as this requires a stirring, symphonic signature, and thanks to the channel challenging mix, Rabin's pitch perfect work is captured perfectly. Indeed, all the sonic situations here are fine, from the discernible dialogue to the underplayed violence and gunfire.
Beginning with nearly 25 minutes of deleted scenes, the DVD version of Gridiron Gang does house a few supplementary surprises. The edited material is interesting, but very little of it is crucial to our appreciation of the film. This is confirmed by an accompanying commentary track from Joanou and Macguire. They explain very clearly why these scenes were skipped, and just like in their full length alternate narrative track that complements the feature presentation, both men are unambiguous and succinct in their opinions. This can make for some dry conversation, but overall, the men do a decent job of defending their film. The rest of the material here is routine. The football training featurette is self-explanatory (actors being put through the paces) while the minor profiles of The Rock and Joanou are neither horrible nor helpful in understanding each man. About the only extra that will intrigue cinephiles is the Multi-Angle football scene. Here, different shots from one of the movie's many sports set pieces are offered, and you can switch between them. Add in the typical trailers and you have a nominal if nice digital package.
Since it's not a bad film by any far stretch of the imagination, Gridiron Gang is not easily dismissible. As a matter of fact, when you look around at some of the other film's released during the Summer of 2006 (when Gang premiered) it is clear that anything less than Recommended would be ridiculous. Granted, it's a little self-serving at times, and unpredictability is not its strong point. In addition, there will be those who see the calm cover-up of issues discussed before and feel that, no matter the vibe of accomplishment and triumph, this film is conspiring to avoid the major issues unraveling our current social structure. That's right – there are only minimal mentions of drugs, racism and gun violence/availability, and if football is such a sensational cure-all, why isn't Porter's plan more universally accepted. The answer is simple – it's a movie. No matter it's foundation in fact, Gridiron Gang is locked in a formula fashioned over the last 100 years of cinematic history. It hits all the right notes – it's just that we've heard this song one too many times before.
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