Gridiron Gang (January 9/07)
Though well made and infused with expectedly impressive production values, Gridiron Gang is never quite able to overcome the incredibly familiar trajectory of its storyline - with the film's various problems exacerbated by a ridiculously overlong running time (it's 125 minutes!)
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stars as Sean Porter, a counselor at a juvenile detention center who decides to start up a football team consisting solely of inmates - much to the chagrin of his superiors (played by Kevin Dunn and Leon Rippy). Though there are some rifts within the team - particularly among two prisoners from rival gangs - Porter whips his boys into fighting shape and subsequently convinces various local football clubs to participate in exhibition games.
Directed by Phil Joanou, Gridiron Gang initially places the emphasis on characters that are almost uniformly unlikable; screenwriter Jeff Maguire offers up a series of gangbangers and thugs as the film's heroes, and eventually attempts to temper their nastiness by infusing each core figure with an exceedingly melodramatic story arc (ie one guy wants his mother to love him, another tries to win over the respect of his girl, etc). And although the majority of the performances are technically proficient, the actors have been given too little to work with to make any kind of substantial impact (something that's even true of Johnson, who's trapped within the confines of a stereotypically firm yet compassionate coach).
But underwritten characterizations are the least of Gridiron Gang's problems, as the movie's been padded out to an absurd degree; there comes a point at which the film could (and should) logically end - those aforementioned enemies embrace and everything - and yet the thing goes on for another forty-five minutes. While never exactly an enthralling piece of work, Gridiron Gang is at least tolerable for much of its opening hour - a vibe that's obliterated once Joanou's unwarranted epic tendencies come to the forefront.
Gridiron Gang certainly has its heart in the right place - particularly with regard to its messages of compassion and forgiveness - but there's just no overlooking the film's various deficiencies (the relentless emphasis on sports-movie cliches obviously doesn't help matters).