Gridiron Gang

Gridiron Gang (2005)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Leon Rippy
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, Featurette, Profile, Multi-Angle Scene

"Most sixteen or seventeen year old kids, they make a bad choice… they get grounded. Then there's kids that make a bad choice, somebody ends up shot dead in a parking lot. Those kids get sent here."

Gridiron Gang, like the film Friday Night Lights in 2004, is a football movie, based on a true story, that's about a lot more than football. It's not just about a team working towards the Big Game, about misfits pulling together to do something beyond themselves, or about an inspiring coach teaching kids about winning and losing. Gridiron Gang has these elements but seems much more concerned with loftier concepts like life, death, loyalty, manipulation, and self-destruction. More importantly, the film provides an intriguing social commentary on education and an understanding of the inner city environment that echoes the tone of the HBO series, The Wire.

Sean Porter, played by Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, is the real-life juvenile detention center counselor who discovers that the teenagers under his leadership gain self-respect and discipline when working together as an organized football team. With a dying mother, a director questioning his tactics, and inter-fighting amongst the teens, it's no easy task for Porter to stay focused and teach the prisoners something that will have an effect on the rest of their lives.

Gridiron Gang wears its heart on its sleeve and some may find its borderline sentimentality will begin to wear a little thin. But if this is the case, I encourage you to track down the intriguing documentary on which the movie is based, also titled Gridiron Gang, about Sean Porter and his experiment. A handful of the scenes from this documentary can be seen at the beginning of the closing credits of the film as well. Often times, sentimentality rings false and that's when I recoil from it… but you'll be surprised as to how much of the dialogue in the movie is word-for-word true to the things Sean Porter said to the youth in his charge. Many of things about the film that seem too Hollywood are the things that actually happened. With this in mind, many of the problems critics had with the movie disappear and we're left with a study of how a strong example can change the course of young lives.

The entire cast leaps head first into the material and everyone quickly feels like a genuine person. I've been a huge fan of the Dwayne Johnson's acting career for quite some time and I really wish he would drop the allusion in his name to his wrestling days. He's so powerful, magnetic, and raw at times, that I wonder why he isn't just Dwayne Johnson the actor. With the right material, Johnson could easily be in the upper echelon of dramatic actors. There's even a lightness, reminiscent of his hilarious appearances on Saturday Night Live, that finds its ways into the darkest corners of the detention center without resorting to cheap, Patch-Adams-esque tricks. Gridiron Gang, while not perfect or award caliber per se, definitely points to Johnson's ability to anchor a heavy dramatic piece. The teenage actors are all spot on and the supporting cast is excellent all around. Xzibit, playing assistant coach and counselor Malcolm Moore, is the most surprising of the supporting cast as he turns in a subtle and quiet performance that adds a loyal strength to the story.

There are some problems… football fans may find the movie's focus too far off of the field, gang members outside of the prison are one-note and not given much room to develop, and things seem to work out rather easily with the right speech at the right time between Porter and the men in charge of the detention center and the high school football leagues. There are also several times, particularly in the final game, when football logic is compromised to make tense plays more dramatic. But all in all, these are all minor quibbles in an otherwise well-intentioned and impressive film.

Gridiron Gang is presented with the MPEG-2 codec and looks amazing. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for this style of cinematography, its washed out palette, and its purposefully blown contrast levels, but the presentation here is wonderfully detailed, clean and sharp. There was no softness, noise, or artifacting, even in more shadowy scenes, and the colors and skin tones were dead on. The one thing I love about the look of this film is how it dates the period piece without making it feel dated. The visual hues let you know that this takes place in the past, but it doesn't suggest a time period. Short of a few cues, this could take place in the eighties, nineties, or today.

The audio is an uncompressed PCM track and really lends itself to all of the various noises occurring on the football field and in the city streets. Dialogue is lost at times under the roar and constant pounding of the football games but it's never anything that's necessary to the story and just adds to the realism of what it would be like to be on the sidelines. There's a nice mix with everything and a layering that brings forward everything you need to hear, just like a good soundscape should. In every instance, I was completely impressed with everything pouring out of my surround system.

Unfortunately, the extras were a real disappointment to me. When I saw this movie in the theater, it was after I tracked down the original documentary online. When I picked up this Special Edition, I really expected to see the documentary that aired on TV in 1993 on the disc but it's shockingly absent. I understand the difficulty of rights issues and what not, and that may be why it's not here… but it seems to me it's a very necessary and fascinating extra that any fan of the film should get to enjoy. Also disappointing is the commentary. Most notably, there is no track with Sean Porter, who is still very much alive. This was another supplement I thought for sure I would find on the disc and I was floored to see it missing. The commentary track on Remember the Titans, starring the actual coaches that were portrayed in the film, is one of the best supplemental concepts that's ever graced DVD. Everything for this Gridiron Gang release is good… but it could've been so much more.

You really should check this movie out. If you're a fan of football, football movies, Friday Night Lights, or The Rock, you probably can't go wrong with this release. It will boost your experience though if you can track down the original documentary narrated by Louis Gossett Jr. As companion pieces, the film and the documentary are fascinating and intriguing looks at the real minds behind the facades of inner city gang members. Each film is also a stirring testament to the impact one person can have on young people who are headed down the wrong path in their lives.