Gridiron Gang

The true story of a football team created from a teenage gang bangers, drug dealers, and car thieves at a California juvenile detention facility is primarily advertised as a vehicle for former pro-wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But fans of the little seen Three O'clock High should notice it as a return to the big screen for director Phil Joanou. If you haven't seen the 1987 high school comedy, go rent it right now. Then you can rent Gridiron Gang if you have a few dollars left over. Gridiron Gang is the story of a drunken pool cleaner who takes a ragged team of misfits and turns them into near-champion ballplayers with the help of a girl pitcher and a.......Wait, that's not right. It's actually the story of a former pro-football player thrown into prison leading a ragged team of misfit prisoners against the guards.......Dang, that's not right either. Ok, it's really the story of Sylvester Stallone taking a ragged team of Allied prisoners of war to play the Nazis in a soccer match........

One of the problems with Gridiron Gang is that it is like literally hundreds of previous movies pitting a rag-tag bunch of "losers" against the sports world at large. In this case, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (you wonder when he is going to Mellencamp his name and drop the wrestling moniker) stars as the real-life Sean Porter, a probation officer working at a juvenile detention facility. Frustrated by the 75% recidivism rate of their chargers. Porter and Malcolm Moore (rapper/actor Xzibit) start a football team, hoping to teach the little tykes things like teamwork, respect, and hard work. From that point on, the movie follows the standard "against the odds" formula of initial skepticism by both the players and powers that be, steady improvement by the team, a big set back, and then a final game against a rival team full of pompous jerks.

Although the plot contains no surprises (they even recycle the "I'm not gonna wear a jockstrap" scene from The Bad News Bears,) Johnson himself is a pleasant surprise. He gives a sympathetic performance that doesn't exactly have you screaming Oscar but also doesn't cause anyone to cringe in embarrassment. Xzibit shows that "Pimp My Ride" is not the apex of his thespian talents, although he's no Ludacris. Unfortunately, the young team members don't convincingly sell the "I'm tired of being a loser, I want to be a winner" dialogue they spout. Jade Yorker as conflicted gang member Willie Weathers is something of a marble mouth, although Brandon Smith as waterboy Bug Wendal is a humorous presence in the best Caretaker legacy.

Director Phil Joanou doesn't give the movie the visual flair seen in Three O'Clock High or his many U2 videos, but the football scenes look very realistic, which is pretty crucial for a sports movie. Trevor Rabin provides a good score (it is nice to see a movie about inner-city youth that doesn't feel like it's required to have a rap soundtrack) and it's all edited with a nice pace that isn't over-done. Also, the closing credits include scenes from a documentary on the real life Porter and shows many of the things in the film were taken directly from real-life events caught by the documentary crew. It's worth hanging around for.

The movie is certainly not the first of this type. It is not going to become the standard bearer. But, it also doesn't need to go on the scrap heap with Little Giants and Mighty Ducks 3. Johnson and Xzibit both demonstrate that they have what it takes to go beyond their initial entertainment fields and become, if not extraordinary, then certainly dependable actors. One hopes this is just the first step in Joanou's trip back into regular feature film making. As is made clear both in the commentary track and in the closing credits of the film, screenwriter Jeff Maguire based his script on a documentary about the real Sean Porter and his team at Camp Kilpatrick, a California youth detention camp. It would have made perfect sense to add this documentary to the DVD and provide more incentive to pick up this disc, but it's not included. It can't be due to rights issues, since some of the producers are the same, so maybe they are holding out for inclusion in the 20th anniversary set.

There is a very good commentary by director Joanou and writer Maguire. They mix behind the scenes details with character motivations in a breezy but informative manner. Maguire mentions ways in which his screenplay differed from the documentary and Joanou credits the use of the actual Camp Kilpatrick as the set to helping the young actors get into the mood he was trying to set. The commentary also carries over into the deleted scenes. There are about 25 minutes worth and, unlike some DVDs, they are all of the same quality as the included scenes. No timing boxes in the frame or poor lighting or missing music. Many of the scenes were cut due to time constraints, especially quite a few football scenes. Joanou and Maguire do note that in a few cases, some of the lost football scenes were set-ups for later scenes, but correctly note that it wasn't critical to have them.

There is no specific making-of featurette, but there is a "Phil Joanou Profile" which doesn't focus on the director solely, instead covering the overall project. It's interesting, but relatively short and the lack of a more full making-of featurette is odd since I remember seeing one on television prior to the theatrical release of the movie. There is also a "Gridiron Gang Football Training" featurette, which covers a three week football camp prior to filming and the choreography of the football plays. The plays in the film do look pretty darn good. This is really the only place on the DVD where the young actors speak about their roles.

The final two featurettes are pretty insubstantial. One is called "The Rock Takes the Field" and covers one scene where Sean Porter comes out in full pads and helmet in order to teach one of the players of the need to go all out. There is also some discussion about Johnson's football career at the University of Miami. The other item is a multi-angle look at five of the films football scenes. This is of only minimal interest, although you do get to see the plays without the music and editing. They were actually full plays rather than just play segments edited together.

The level of the extras is not compensate for the less than stellar film. Someone with a strong interest in the subject matter might get a little more out of the movie by viewing the extras or at least listening to the commentary. Everyone else should find a better sports movie (start with the original The Bad News Bears) or a better Phil Joanou movie (Three O'clock High.)