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‘Gridiron Gang’ plays a predictable game

Based on a documentary that is far more compelling than this standard fare
/ Source: The Associated Press

Running alongside the closing credits for “Gridiron Gang” is a series of clips from a 1993 documentary of the same name, which provided the basis for this drama about a football team at a Los Angeles juvenile detention center.

The real people say and do the same things we just saw actors say and do, only in a stripped-down, matter-of-fact manner, and without the swelling of bombastic music to accompany every feel-good or poignant event.

Those final few moments are more powerful than anything we saw during the previous two hours, simply because they don’t try so hard to be.

Former television and music video director Phil Joanou, working from a script by Jeff Maguire, is relentless in his attempts to inspire us; instead, the result is just overbearing and redundant.

The football scenes themselves, though, are sufficiently visceral in their bone-crunching intensity. To his credit, Joanou lets the plays play out for themselves, and doesn’t try to amp them up with needless edits and visual tricks. (Though if you absolutely can’t wait until Saturday or Sunday to satisfy your football fix, “Invincible,” the story of former Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale, is a better bet.)

And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does exude his usual natural magnetism as the probation officer turned coach, even though his tough-love tactics are a classic sports movie cliche. Not once does he try to wring a laugh out of raising that famous eyebrow of his, so at least he shows restraint in that regard.

Johnson stars as Sean Porter, a counselor who’s frustrated in his attempts to rehabilitate the young criminals who inevitably end up being sent back to him after brief returns to the outside world.

Along with his colleague, Malcolm (rapper Xzibit, who doesn’t get to do much besides stand next to The Rock during practice), Sean comes up with a plan to teach his charges how to play football, hoping that the teamwork and responsibility they learn will turn them into better men.

Among the reluctant players are Willie (Jade Yorker), a gang member whose cousin was shot to death and who’s serving time for a shooting of his own; Calvin (David Thomas), who belongs to a rival South Central L.A. gang and clashes immediately with Willie (you can see where this is going early on); Kenny (Trever O’Brien), the lone white kid who’s in for car theft; and Junior (Sete Taase), a burly Samoan who’s 17 and already has a 2-year-old son.

Pretty much none of them has ever taken part in an organized sport before; they can barely spell Mustangs, the name of their team, during one of several obligatory training montages. They give up too easily when things get tough, but of course they’ll come back of their own volition, ready to soak up some valuable life lesson. (Eventually all of them will get to make a tearful, I’m-tired-of-being-a-loser speech. Cue the inspirational music.)

Then there is the problem of finding other teams to play. Most high school coaches say no for fear that violence will erupt, though Malcolm does find a clever way to get a Christian school’s coach to say yes.

Sean also naturally faces resistance from his own bosses, who tell him his goals are impossible. This provides him with the opportunity to say, “Then let’s try the impossible, ’cause the possible just ain’t working,” and he will utter something pithy along these lines ad nauseam throughout the film.

“Even though you’re locked up, you’re somebody,” is another favorite theme of his. Perhaps you’ve seen The Rock say this line in the trailers, which tell you everything you need to know about this utterly predictable flick.