The Rock's big muscles and talent for smashing heads is put on the shelf while he steps into a role that a few years ago might have gone to R. Lee Ermey in Gridiron Gang. He stars as real life underage correctional camp officer Sean Porter in the true story of a bunch of little bastards who become slightly less likely to stab you after they play some football and take out their aggression on rich white kids in opposing football costumes.
Putting The Rock in a football movie where he doesn't do any actual tackling is kind of like putting Jim Carrey in a comedy and then asking him to play the straight man. I understand that as an actor, he probably has this driving need to be taken seriously, but if that's the case maybe he should get a gig with Scorsese or hop on a stage somewhere and do Shakespeare. Somehow I don't think The Longest Yard Junior is the way to get respect as an actor.
Gridiron Gang opens with some fudged statistics about incarcerated minors and a horribly misguided monologue that tries to draw some sort of strange parallel between teen gun violence and staying out too late past your curfew. Sorry guys, shooting a convenience store clerk just isn't the same as staying out past ten.
Then flip to the story of Willy, a hardcore gangbanger who decides not to shoot a helpless rival and goes home to shoot his abusive step-father instead. He ends up in Sean Porter's correctional facility, where Sean takes a shine to him. Porter and his fellow incarcerators have started to realize that what they're doing isn't working. Their job is rehabilitation, yet 75% of the kids who leave their system end up either right back there or in prison.
Sean, an ex-college football star, decides to do something: he lets the kids play football. Gangbangers, thieves, and killers are forced for the first time in their lives to work together for something bigger than themselves. In the process, Sean gets to stroke his incomplete football dreams when their team, The Mustangs, ends up a season success.
The really confusing thing about Gridiron Gang is that it's not sure what it wants to be. On paper the film probably reads like another Disney sports flick. It portrays itself as the story of good kids who've made bad decisions having their life turned around. But it's actually the story of a bunch of brutal criminals and serial killers managing not to shoot one another long enough to beat the hell out of a bunch of suburban rednecks on the gridiron. Sorry, I'm just not that sympathetic. Worse, though there's a lot of talk about how much Sean Porter's football program worked, the "where are they now" credits at the end of the film reveal that at least half of the movie's main characters in real life ended up back in prison or flat out dead. Maybe they should have just let us all wonder instead.
Look, there are a few great sports moments in Gridiron Gang, and I have no doubt that most people will eek enough emotional investment out of it to end up cheering The Rock and his kids along. But the movie is long and confused. Lost between being Remember the Titans and a Spike Lee joint about gang violence, it never picks a direction and instead gets lost in strange side trips about Sean Porter's dying mother ("Lost's" L. Scott Caldwell permanently typecast as a cancer patient). What was The Rock thinking? Stop coaching and start doing. Give the man something to hit.