Directed by: Phil Joanou
Produced by: Neal H. Moritz & Lee Stanley
Starring: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Xzibit, Kevin Dunn & Leon Rippy
Budget: $30 million
Box office: $41,480,851
Release Date: September 15, 2006
Sometimes in cinema films come out with concepts and structures that have been done a million times over. Take for example most Rom-Coms; they are literally a dime a dozen. So much so that telling them apart can even be a challenge; it’s not like you can distinguish a film like The Break-Up from the crowd by referring to it as ‘That one with Jennifer Aniston in it’ because newsflash, she’s in a whole lot of them! No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits had essentially the exact same premise to the point that I genuinely cannot believe that know body was ever sued over the issue and they came out in the very same year! Hell, finding a Rom-Com without an obligatory ten to fifteen minute sequence after the first hour or so where the guy and the girl ‘break friends’ and at least one of them cries before something involving a phone call brings them back together, or pushes them further apart before something else brings them back together in some more recent offerings, is like finding a white guy at a Lauryn Hill party that was actually invited.
Rom-Coms aren’t the only genre to fall into this trap though. The other genre I am of course referring to is the good old fashioned Sports Drama. Barely a year before Gridiron Gang hit the theatres it was preceded by Coach Carter which had essentially the exact same premise except it was based around Basketball. However Gridiron Gang’s sport in the spotlight is Football (the American version where they carry the ball with their hands) and is based on the true story of probation officer Sean Porter and the Kilpatrick Mustangs of the Camp Kilpatrick juvenile detention centre. The long and short of this true story, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on all of the accuracies, is that Porter helped to influence and shape the centres sports programme in the 90’s, particularly its Football division and Gridiron Gang focuses on the teams 1990 season where they, according to the film, did pretty well by all accounts.
As I’ve already mentioned; Gridiron Gang falls into a very over crowded genre. It’s not quite overcrowded enough to be considered the Mumbai of film genres, I’d reserve that for the fore mentioned Rom-Coms but whatever city it is the equivalent of would certainly be a place with no shortage of tower blocks and house-shares. Gridiron Gang currently holds a rating of 42% on Rotten Tomatoes with criticism aimed at, you guessed it, a clichéd plot and what they thought was formulaic execution. Though I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this film doesn’t have a number of genre specific clichés the way that it’s executed with such passion from its lead, the authentic feel and some surprisingly solid humour and backstories elevate it far above the pack and for this reason I actually enjoyed it.
Films of this nature will fall flatter and harder than I would on a field trying to play the sport in question if the cast are not invested. Luckily director Phil Joanou understood this and cast Johnson into the lead role. Dwayne Johnson may not be the ideal source of inspiration for young budding actors in terms of range or diversity but in terms of passion and giving everything to a role you’d struggle to find better. Johnson not only puts his all in but he suits the role of Sean Porter perfectly. Whether he’s screaming encouragement at the whole team or talking one-to-one to individuals in a more caring almost parent-like manner you can’t help but get invested. Xzibit takes on the role of Malcolm Moore, Porters assistant coach and does the same to a smaller degree. Elsewhere the cast of inmates does an incredibly solid job; incredible considering that a number of them had minimum to no acting experience at this point of their careers. Many of them exhibit powerful onscreen emotions, a lot of the time without even having to say much (all in the eyes and the facial expressions!) and Brandon Mychal Smith and Jurnee Smollett as Bug Wendal and Danyelle Rollins respectively are hilarious.
Visually Gridiron Gang packs an impressive punch as well not to mention an authentic one. This is mainly because it was actually filmed at the real Camp Kilpatrick facility. The sleeping areas look crowded, the training areas are sparse and basic looking and the whole facility looks legitimately underfunded and somewhat depressing. The sense of heat and humidity of the area and time of year is also very apparent. This is no doubt the intended effect and it works well.
Being as I was born and raised in the UK I have little knowledge of this style of football. As a result; I can’t really speak on how realistic the games themselves look and play-out or if any of the training methods seen are even remotely accurate but it all looks good from an outsider’s perspective.
Ultimately Gridiron Gang may not quite break the mould but what it does is done with such passion and conviction that it’s difficult not to admire. I cannot stress enough how great Dwayne Johnson is throughout and how much respect he earned from me as an actor after seeing him in this role. All in all Gridiron Gang may not be the film for you if you’re looking for a brand new genre but if you’re looking for one of the best of a genre you’ve already seen before then I can’t recommend it enough.