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Published: Friday, 9/15/2006

Movie review: Gridiron Gang ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), left, and Sean Porter (Dwayne  The
Rock  Johnson) coach a football team in Gridiron Gang. Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), left, and Sean Porter (Dwayne The Rock Johnson) coach a football team in Gridiron Gang.
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Gridiron Gang tells a heartfelt and sweetly noble story that, with a slight bit of the melodramatic embellishment removed, could just as well be pressed to DVDs and mailed to the parents of "at-risk youth."

It's set at a juvenile detention camp where the philosophy of Scared Straight has been replaced with a rather large man. His smile is the size of my head. Then again, he rarely smiles. He answers to The Rock. Or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Or The "Dwayne Johnson" Rock.

Wow 'em is his philosophy.

Kill 'em with intimidation.

Whichever you decide on the name, however, know this: The guy may be effective, but the juvies are more effective. His head appears chiseled from a chunk of granite - it's an Easter Island noggin, without a doubt - and his way of speaking carries the stern, sincere tone of a recidivism brochure. But three-quarters of the boys under his watch, he admits, will not be suspended from school next year or the year after that. They will be right back here, mere months after getting out. Or they'll be murdered. He plays Sean Porter, a probation officer who resides in a circular command center, surrounded by young punks sleeping on cots.

He raises his head.

Looks about. All is quiet.

Lowers his head. Goes back to paperwork. A kid slips out of his cot and beats the snot out of a rival - and on and on it goes.

Camp Kilpatrick is nestled in the Santa Monica foothills; it's a real camp, and the movie, directed by Phil Joanou, does an admirable job of suggesting isolation and punishment in itself is a stop-gap measure. A few of the administrators mean well but they've stopped pretending they do any good, and one by one we see how these boys can't easily set aside old lives. Some are fathers, some are gang members, some are marked by other gang members, some are biding their time until they can exact their revenge. Exhausted from disciplining the same teenagers endlessly, Sean goes about starting a football team - a genuine Bad News Bears - without thinking much about whether they'll ever get to actually play a real game.

Let me stop a second.

I liked Gridiron Gang, even though I felt as if we've all been here many times before. It's about the way sports can instill self-esteem and discipline. By lacking these qualities, Sean argues, his kids will be headed for a lifetime of trouble. An admirable message (and program) all around. Not a new one, of course, and one that Joanou, the consummate TV-commercial-director-turned-filmmaker, gives all the pizzazz of a public service announcement. (The kids barely register as distinct, complex personalities; they're more like test cases, separated by hairstyles.)

But as entertainment, Gridiron Gang takes on the thankless job of shaping yet another bunch of football players into a feel-good squad that perseveres in the face of uneven odds. And I wonder, why? Not, why bother?

But, why are sports in movies always just a means to self-worth? A way for pulling one's self out of the dumps (Invincible)? Or the only taste of glory in the lives of the film's characters (Miracle)? Sports accomplish those things. But surely not all of these people (and most of these stories, including Gridiron Gang, are based on real people) feel sports defined who they are. It's a symptom, I gather, of a schizophrenic culture that tells us it's only a game even as parents on grade-school sidelines verbally assault the refs - do your best, but if you could win, darling, well, that's better.

Where are the sports pictures in which sports are, you know, fun? Aside from Bull Durham and Slap Shot, I can't think of one. And tellingly, those are comedies. I probably wouldn't even be wondering this if it weren't for The Rock. In the back of his eyes I detect a little Mickey Rooney - a bit of "Hey gang, let's put on a show!" Or rather, "Hey! Let's remember this is, at the end of the day, just a game."

Maybe it's because The Rock played football; he attended the University of Miami on a scholarship but injured his back and dropped out. He operates at two speeds (stern and sincere) but there's a gentleness about him that's rare in a leading man - particularly one so imposing. He's authoritative without being pushy and self-possessed without showing ego. The guy's a star, and the reason is he can take schmaltz like Gridiron Gang and leave no doubt he believes in it.

Even when he doesn't.



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