“The Rock” — formerly known as “Flex Kavana” and, a bit later, as “Rocky Maivia” — was a practicing actor long before he turned to movies and started taking down $12 million paychecks. The happily deluded throngs who used to watch him lay signature moves like the People’s Elbow or the ominously named Charging Double-Leg Spinebuster on his old nemesis, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, knew they were witnessing high art. It’s not easy to sell fake violence when the real thing is all around us — and the Rock always made a good show of it. But then, drama is in his blood: His father and his maternal grandfather were also pro wrestlers.
Given his training ground — not the Actors Studio, but the World Wrestling Federation — the player who bills himself these days as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sounds a bit, well, bogus, when he makes speeches about the differences between Winning and Losing. But that’s exactly what he does through most of Gridiron Gang, a well-meant trifle about an idealistic corrections officer who starts up a football team at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. For those who’ve been living on the nonplanet Pluto, here’s the message: “Losers” are guys with low self-esteem who choose to shoot other guys in the head for no good reason; “winners” are guys who put on shoulder pads and helmets and kick the crap out of other guys on the football field for no good reason. That distinction is starkly underlined on Gridiron Gang‘s soundtrack: The amplified collisions of pad-on-pad and helmet-on-flesh are actually louder and more percussive than the movie’s drive-by gunshots. Director Phil Joanou’s meaning seems clear enough: Societally endorsed rage, governed by the fifteen-yard personal-foul penalty, is preferable to the freelance rage of the streets.
Never mind this overlong film’s obvious parallels — and outright thefts — from Remember the Titans and both versions of The Longest Yard. With Joanou (State of Grace, Final Analysis) at the helm and the Rock blowing the whistle, what we get is one huge, indigestible sports-movie platitude. That it’s based on what Hollywood always likes to call a “true story” makes little difference: true, false, or fudged, Gang massages and manipulates us with a fervor bordering on shamelessness. A disclaimer in the final credits reads: “Some characters and incidents are fictional.” We can just imagine.
Johnson’s fictionalized character, Sean Porter, seeks to combine the playbooks of Vince Lombardi, Dirty Harry Callahan, and Mother Teresa — the football coach as tough-love rebel and no-nonsense slavedriver — and if the mixture doesn’t quite come off, at least the Rock boasts some credentials here, too. Before manufacturing his theatrical feud with Steve Austin, Johnson was a 295-pound defensive end for the University of Miami (where he studied criminal justice) and, before a shoulder injury laid him low, Doug Flutie’s teammate in the Canadian Football League.
Frustrated in his work as a youth counselor at hard-nosed Camp Kilpatrick — “We’re not even makin’ a dent,” Porter laments — he has the usual suggestion for the warden: “Let’s try the impossible.” In this context, “impossible” means slapping a football team together in just three weeks, forming it from a collection of belligerent gangbangers, lumbering fat boys, and sweetly demented crack dealers. You can hear Coach Porter’s uplifting slogans coming a mile away. Sample: “This is your ‘hood now. You’re Mustangs.” Among the variously appealing kids: Jade Yorker’s troubled Willie Weathers, who’s in the joint for shooting his mother’s abusive boyfriend dead in their living room; rapper Xzibit as Malcolm Moore, a member of the rival gang that killed Willie’s cousin; Trever O’Brien as the Mustangs’ token white player, Kenny Bates, who doesn’t get along with his mother; and Brandon Mychal Smith as the cute little waterboy who’s doing time because he stabbed an old lady for her purse.
The progress of the Mustangs’ season holds no surprises. Raw and disorganized, they lose game one to a sharp high school team 38-0, get over grave doubt and infighting in a 21-14 loss on their second Saturday, then reel off eight straight wins. Because they’ve become a family. Because football builds character (as long as your name is not O.J. Simpson or Maurice Clarett). And because Coach Porter is a great guy. Gridiron Gang doesn’t go so far as to insist that the game transforms these kids into saints — some of them, we are told, are destined to trade their Friday Night Lights back for a Saturday Night Special — but Joanou and screenwriter Jeff Maguire are not big on ambiguity. Here we have inspiration, plain and simple, the Charging Double-Leg Spinebuster of football-coach hero stories. And if you’re not in the mood for that, you can damn well go grab some bench and shut the hell up.