Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Sean Porter
Xzibit as Malcolm Moore
L. Scott Caldwell as Bobbi Porter
Leon Rippy as Paul Higa
Kevin Dunn as Dexter
Michael J. Pagan as Roger Weathers
Jade Yorker as Willie Weathers
David V. Thomas as Kelvin
Setu Taase as Junior Plaita
James Earl as Madlock
Brandon Smith as Bug
Jamal Mixon as Evans
Robert Zepeda as Peavy
Omari Hardwick as Free
Sean Porter (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a correctional officer at a juvenile detention facility who has gotten fed up with watching kids come in, do their time and get thrown back out onto the streets. The kids usually have nothing to look forward other than an early death or life in prison. Porter and his fellow officer Malcolm (Xzibit) come up with a plan to help the struggling kids build a sense of identity and self-worth away from gangs and the street by getting them involved in a character and team-building activity – football.
Like many films of this type before (“Coach Carter,” etc.), “Gridiron Gang” is based on real people and a real story, and like those other films is built around inspiring sports films clichés, though it’s given some extra weight by the brutality of the situations many of the kids face, particularly the gangbangers who have been brought up in a culture where gang identity supersedes rationality and inner city kids are living lives of constant tribal warfare. The movie’s opening in particular is quite bleak and well done, even if shaky camerawork makes it difficult to always tell exactly what’s going on. Director Jouanou (“Entropy”) makes a strong effort to show exactly what kind of lives these kids need to be rescued from.
It’s a difficult balancing act between the darkness of gang life and the lightness of the sports film where inspiring moments can very easily become maudlin and wearing. “Gridiron Gang” slips and stumbles a bit, particularly in the second half, but for the most part makes it across whole.
The coach is usually the one that decides whether these types of films work and how sappy (or not) they become and that’s as true for “Gridiron Gang” as it is for any other sports film. The good news is that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can actually act and keeps the film on course with even a few flashes of charismatic flare. It’s not an extremely complex role but it does stretch him more than he’s had to up to this point, particularly a subplot about his relationship with his dying (presumably of cancer, though it’s never stated) mother and his long gone father. He pulls it off and makes it seem real, and that’s as much as anyone could ask for. If nothing else, “Gridiron Gang” shows he’s capable of more than just action films and broad comedy.
He gets some support from Xzibit as his assistant coach and administrators Leon Rippy and Kevin Dunn (it’s a general rule in these types of films that the administration always has to be against the idea of the program at the start), but mostly it’s just Johnson and the kids, who tend to get by with looking sullen and brooding. The rest of the film is fairly standard even if the stakes are higher than most films of the type, particularly after a member of the team is attacked after a game by a rival gang. It’s not the first of it’s type or the best, but it’s not bad at all.