“All inspiration, all the time” is the ethos of “Gridiron Gang,” a crowd-pleasing, uplifting, feel-good and not-so-rare hybrid — the sports/prison movie — in which Los Angeles gangbangers are taught the virtues of trading violence on the streets for violence on the field. Auds will respond, either to the uplifting message and the solid action sequences. Or, they’ll simply wither under the power of the Rock’s stentorian delivery of writer Jeff Maguire’s motivational lines, each of which should be accompanied by a rimshot.
Compared with the Rock, Charlton Heston’s Moses was Wallace Shawn. But the Rock’s reality-based character, Sean Porter (“Gridiron Gang” is based on the 1993 documentary of the same name) has his hands full. Disillusioned by the 75% recidivism rate at the juvenile correctional detention center where he spends his days keeping kids from killing each other, Porter decides to put together a football team.
However, the team has no real facilities, no uniforms, no opponents and no support, not even from Porter’s colleagues (Leon Rippy and Kevin Dunn). The kids, for that matter, don’t really want to play. But Porter is determined. And when he says run wind sprints, people ask, “How fast?”
D.p. Jeff Cutter’s shooting gives a muscular authenticity to the camp, where members of warring gangs are kept in dangerously close proximity; and to the playing field, where the once-troubled youth find their way into self-awareness and teamwork.
The process isn’t without its hitches: In their first game, Porter’s team, the Mustangs, are humiliated, and Porter humiliates himself by losing his cool and berating his players, who, for all their street-toughness, can’t handle loss of face. The football program teeters, but small victories ensure that boys will become men, and the coach will become a leader.
A good looking film and a well-executed production, “Gridiron Gang” spends little time getting down to business — the first 20 minutes include a drive-by shooting, near-assassination, domestic killing, several assaults and the sense that the gang warfare outside could erupt inside at any minute.
Director Phil Joanou (“State of Grace,” “Heaven’s Prisoners”) has a fine story to work with, and the Rock is a charismatic presence, but no one seems confident enough in the material or the audience to allow anything natural to occur. Each little triumph is greeted like the arrival of the wheel and Porter comes across as a little bit Placido Domingo, and a little bit Dr. Phil.
The supporting players are uniformly fine, particularly Jade Yorker and David Thomas as Willie and Kelvin, whose enmity as opposing gang members melts just as the Mustangs cohere as a team. Xzibit is notable as Porter’s assistant; he gives a measured performance that’s a welcome antidote to so much overstatement of motivation and message.