Before seeing GRIDIRON GANG, I would have said that given the right sort of role, one with action, a greater or lesser dash of comedy, and no stretching of a thespian nature, that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a fine screen presence but not much more. I have been proved wrong. There’s humor and a fair amount of football action in this film based on the documentary of the same name, but the biggest hurdle Johnson leaps is into the ranks of legitimate actors. He’s got depth, he’s got some range, and he’s got the heart and sincerity to make them both work.
The story falls into the category of stranger than fiction. Sean Porter (Johnson), tired of seeing his charges at Camp Kilpatrick, a maximum security juvenile facility, give up on themselves and end up as a statistic, comes up with the radical plan to start a football team at the facility. An ex-player himself, he’s sure it will build the kids’ self-esteem as the first step to setting them on the straigh and narrow. That’s how he sells the idea to the skeptical administration, and to the other schools that would be competing against the newly formed Mustangs, as they are dubbed. As he discovers, it’s not allocating the funds, always in short supply, to buy the equipment that is the biggest obstacle, nor is it talking high schools in the area to allow the team, made up of offenders ranging from thieves to murders, to play on their campuses. It’s not even discovering, in one of the film’s most telling and yet lighthearted moments, that these kids can’t spell their team’s name. The toughest part is convincing these kids that there is a life for them outside of crime, violence, and gangs. In short, changing their world view for all time and doing it in one football season.
Writer Jeff Maguire along with director Phil Joanou does the seemingly impossible. They never for a minute let the audience forget that the kids onscreen are hardened and angry, but they take audience expectations, turn them on their head, and force that same audience to see beyond the crimes, which are heinous, to the kid to can still be salvaged. Take the team’s mascot, Bug (Brandon Mychal Smith), who could be any precocious kid on any sit-com, so the reveal of why he’s there becomes not just a shock, but an indictment of a society and a system that failed him and that, until Porter came along, dealt with him as a throwaway.
It’s Johnson, though, with his preternatural charisma, which makes it all work by being the bridge for the audience, allowing it to care about these kids as much as Porter does. Even when whacking a kid with a magazine for starting a fight, he gives Porter a palpable concern that makes the whacking a way of getting the kid’s attention, not a punishment. He’s massive enough to be a physical threat to his charges, but he’s also got the presence, as Porter must have, to react to them as people, not as problems, maintaining his authority while still respecting their potential even if they don’t. He even gets the sentiment just right, doing the tough guy exterior with a soft and squishy core with his eyes blinking just a little too quickly when moved by gesture by his kids. He takes it even further in a touching sub-plot involving Porter’s mother who is dealing with a terminal illness. In those moments, he’s a kid himself trying to be strong for his mother while still seeking the sort of consolation only she can deliver.
GRIDIRON GANG is gritty, intense, and thoroughly engrossing as it sweeps its audience along, and therein lies its strength. By being uncompromising in showing the problem, it makes the effort, not the final score of any particular game, the thrust of the story. By redefining what a winner is, it allows for human frailty, and makes genuine heroes of the most unlikely people.
NB: Stick around for the end credits for a look at the real Sean Porter in the documentary GRIDIRON GANG.