OK, hands up all those who think they've seen one too many sports movies, or movies with troubled teens having inspirational teachers motivate them out of their dire straits. Movies like Dangerous Minds, Coach Carter, Hard Ball, and even recent dance movies like Take the Lead, and Step Up, all seem to have come from the same mould.
Based on a true story, and on the Emmy award winning documentary of the same name, Gridiron Gang follows the tried and tested formula for movies with juvenile delinquents. The misfits cannot work together, and it is through sports that they learn camaraderie, the value of friendship, and of not giving up hope. To do this, they have to first be instilled with discipline, and here's where the coach cum motivator come into play.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson joins the list of stars with stints as cinematic teachers/motivators, just as the likes of Antonio Banderas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Samuel L Jackson have preceded him. And for a movie like this, with attitude and a host of students with menacing street grit, he comes across as totally believable, and looked the role too as a teacher who can command and gain r-e-s-p-e-c-t from the troubled teens. Having starred in mostly action movies in his Hollywood career thus far, Gridiron Gang allowed The Rock some space in dramatic moments to prove his acting chops, so take this opportunity to see if you'll laugh and cry together with him. You can't deny that his charismatic presence (even sans The People's Eyebrow) helped a bit.
Despite its 2 hours length, the movie surprisingly never felt like it dragged nor that it needed a lift from its sports action scenes. It balances the dramatic moments and set action pieces well, and this is somehow quite rare for sports movies, which usually excel in one area over the other. The movie's strengths, because of familiarity in themes and structure, lied in its execution, as well as allowing you to feel for some of its key characters. Given that the sport in focus is American Football, there is absolutely no necessity for anyone to be familiar with the sport in order to enjoy the game. Which allowed the movie to potentially reach out to a greater audience not only on the basis of its universal themes, never mind that the sport is relatively unpopular here.
And given the enthusiastic response from the audience to its game sequences, I'd say you'll feel for the Mustangs as they grow and develop as a team, and champion through the odds and obstacles along the way. It's somewhat heartening to know that strength in unity holds true in the circumstances presented, and that every "loser" has a chance to make it good. Although many of the characters have committed crimes, some violent, these are almost always never dwelled upon by director Phil Joanou, who seem to want to walk the talk by putting emphasis on the more positive aspects of human character, especially those who are in need of help to get back to the right path in society. This is no yellow-ribbon programme, and gaining acceptance back in society is a constant uphill battle, starting with performance on the football field.
There are plenty of ra-ra moments in the movie, and the usual speeches on self-worth, respect, and constant reminders not to throw a young life full of potential away. Life's a journey of constant learning, and that's very true for the boys in the Mustang team, player and coach alike.
Stay tuned when the end credits roll to glimpse the documentary on which the movie is based upon, as well as to meet the real Sean Porter and the faces of the real people behind some of the characters in the movie.