Who really wants to see another feel-good movie about a tough educator who takes on both the most violent juvenile delinquents and “the system,” raising them from the abyss of failure and imprisonment to success that they wouldn’t have dared dream of only months before? Do we really need another formulaic sports flick, “based on a true story” about a coach taking his rag-tag team of underdogs all the way to the city championship?
You bet we do!
In what’s being touted as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s dramatic debut, Gridiron Gang showcases both the former professional wrestler’s physical prowess and his emerging acting chops as tough-as-nails juvenile detention officer Sean Porter. Frustrated by the 75 percent recidivism rate of the teen felons in his charge at the Camp Kilpatrick reformatory in Los Angeles County, Porter sees that the vicious circle of violence, gang activity, and growing up without fathers has doomed them to wasted lives behind bars.
He keeps sending one troubled kid in particular, Roger (Michael J. Pagan), to “the hole” for punishment.
“Where’re you gonna be in four years?” Porter grills him.
“In jail,” the sulking youth answers.
“No! You’re going to be dead!”
Sure enough, even though Roger is trying to go straight, while on release a week later he is gunned down in a drive-by shooting while hanging out with his old gang. Soon Roger’s brother Willie (Jade Yorker) winds up at the same reformatory when he shoots his mother’s abusive live-in boyfriend.
Driving home from work one night, Porter spots a group of kids playing football under the lights and has an inspiration. As a last-ditch effort to try to turn around the presumably unsalvageable lives of Camp Kilpatrick’s murderers, rapists, and carjackers, he launches a football program.
Porter cajoles many of the toughest youths to join the Mustang team, where nobody gets a free ride and membership has to be earned. Attempting to convince the skeptical administration to fund his team, he reminds them that “these kids have never worked hard for anything in their lives.” Once his kids amble onto the practice field, they learn that being tough is more than bullying and posturing, but requires discipline, commitment, and self-restraint.
What impressed me most were the sequences in which Porter builds up the team, drilling them through tough workouts and scrimmages, testing their endurance, and, for the first time in their lives, forging their characters. As with Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in the 1938 classic Boys Town, Porter operates on the premise that his boys are not inherently bad. “You are somebody,”he tells them, “and are worthy of something.” But his attempts to inspire the team go beyond mere pep talks: Porter instills in them the lesson that true self-esteem can be gained only by achievement, not merely by inflating their egos with false praise. “It’s a whole new world out there when you earn things,” he tells them.
True self-esteem can be gained only by achievement.
Having Coach Porter as the first man in their lives to believe in them and serve as a father figure fills the youths with false expectations at their first game. Despite a couple of good tackles early on, the Mustangs get a rude awakening once their opponents gather steam. After getting stomped on for a 38-0 loss, not only do many on the team start to question whether the football program is worth it, but so do some of Camp Kilpatrick’s administrators.
“We wanted to create self-esteem, but it was just the opposite,” one of them laments to Porter. “These kids can’t handle that kind of disappointment. We have to pull the plug.”
Just as everyone seems willing to throw in the towel, one of Porter’s players, Junior (Setu Taase), discovers that self-esteem is more than immediate gratification, and requires diligent effort even in the face of crushing defeat. Junior convinces his teammates why they must not give up. “It’s like I told you, Coach,” he explains to Porter, “we’re tired of being losers.” Predictably, the Mustangs improve and fight their way to the playoffs.
While the action on the field is shot a little too claustrophobically with telephoto lenses, the movie as a whole doesn’t suffer much. Trevor Rabin (of the group Yes) provides an emotionally rousing soundtrack. But the pillar of the film is The Rock, who supports it with a strong performance. A former University of Miami football standout, he brings credibility and conviction to his role. While he’s come a long way from his “Layeth the Smacketh Down” WWF days, The Rock is still not exactly an accomplished and subtle actor. Of course, tough kids don’t need understatement and nuance—they need sturdy and straightforward. Think Lee Marvin’s Major Reisman from The Dirty Dozen, crossed with Glenn Ford’s Mr. Dadier in Blackboard Jungle.
In the durable genre of tough educators who turn around troubled inner-city youths, The Rock’s turn on screen in Gridiron Gang doesn’t rise to the level of Morgan Freeman’s breakthrough performance in Lean on Me (1989), or Sidney Poitier’s memorable turn in To Sir, with Love (1967). Neither does Gridiron Gang belong in the same league with other great sports flicks about underdog teams who go all the way to the top, like Hoosiers (1986) or Friday Night Lights (2004).
But, as a movie which straddles both genres, it really gels and will lift the spirits of most viewers. Sure, Gridiron Gang is formulaic. But what makes it enjoyable and moving is the true-life example of how one man turns around the lives of troubled kids by instilling them with pride, faith in themselves, and awareness that they are not born criminals, but possess the free will to make productive lives for themselves.
No-excuses self-esteem requires a formula, too; and Gridiron Gang shows how it’s done.