'Gridiron Gang'

Film doesn't score as high as real-life story

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Sean Porter (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) is tired of being the wrong kind of sheepherder, the sort who fattens up the sheep -- or, in this case, troubled teenage boys -- only to see them slaughtered on the street.

Xzibit (standing, left) and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (standing, right) star in "Gridiron Gang."
Click photo for larger image.

'Gridiron Gang'

Starring: The Rock, Xzibit.

Director: Phil Joanou.

Rating: PG-13 for some startling scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language.

Web site: www.sonypictures.com/movies/gridirongang

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He is a probation officer at Camp Kilpatrick, a maximum-security juvenile compound in the Santa Monica Mountains. Far too often, the camp ends up being a way station on the path to jail or death.

Porter doesn't say it, but he subscribes to the theory once advanced by President Clinton that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So he proposes the camp start a football team and try to recruit regular high schools as competitors.

"Let's try the impossible. The possible ain't working," Porter says in "Gridiron Gang," a drama based on a real story told in a 1993 Emmy-winning documentary of the same name.

The movie, directed by Phil Joanou and written by Jeff Maguire based on the documentary, follows Porter's efforts to mold the juveniles -- some of whom come from warring gangs, many of whom committed violent crimes -- into a team that can compete against long-established, winning squads.

"This is your hood now. ... You're Mustangs," Porter tells his ragtag band.

With enough punchy motivational speeches for a PBS pledge drive and the assistance of another officer named Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), Porter guides the team through its first Cinderella season. It happens to coincide with a decline in the health of Porter's mother.

"Gridiron Gang" is wider than it is deep, with a couple of players emerging from the pack thanks to their brief back stories or on-field or sideline support. Chief among them is Jade Yorker, who plays running back Willie Weathers with a nice intensity.

Some of the sappier elements -- the subplot about Porter's mother and how the team reacts to her illness -- feel forced but are true, The Rock said in a recent interview.

But the movie has one of those moments where a player unexpectedly suits up, which ranks high on the list of sports cliches. It reduces Xzibit's role to a near afterthought and tosses in a racial epithet like an incendiary device, although its use backfires.

Porter speaks in inspirational bursts and is forced to learn a few lessons just as his players are. The Rock, whose own troubled past and former college playing days make him a perfect fit for Porter, lends charisma and energy to his character.

Although "Gridiron Gang" doesn't ignore the crimes that landed the boys at the camp, it doesn't dwell on them; otherwise, it might be impossible to root for them. It can't touch "Friday Night Lights" for a recent movie using football as a backdrop, but it makes the point that turning a group of misfits into a team can be a transforming moment. It also offers lessons about second chances and not being branded a loser by yourself or others.

If you go, don't bolt for the door, because the movie ends with clips of the real Porter (who seems far more serious than The Rock) and updates on the players, some tragic, some triumphant.

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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