September 16, 2006 | Comments ()

By Phillip Stephens | Film | September 16, 2006 |


Having grown up in a central hub of the Bible Belt, I feel like I understand to some degree the grassroots cultural obsession with high school football. Never particularly athletic myself, it was easy to fall into the frame of mind that was highly critical of the fervor surrounding the sport, especially when our school district could manage to fund seven coaches and a (fucking) athletic museum for a cadre of numbskulls who had little or no scholastic intentions and couldn’t win five games in a season.

Upon reflection, however, this hellbent youthful iconoclasm was probably just part and parcel of growing up and is heavily tempered by the realization that, for many of those people, football was all they had. Perhaps the coaches who screamed and tore at their hair, the fans who wept and cursed, and the players who concussed one another and vomited in the summer heat just understood that this was the best thing they could do when the rest of their lives didn’t offer much else. Maybe they poured their energies and egos into football because they knew outside of that, all they had to look forward to was a lifetime as a used car salesman or ticket-taker, probably mere blocks away from the same field of their glory days.

I guess my point in bringing this up is that Gridiron Gang, an otherwise by-the-numbers sports film, was actually quite good at elucidating what a positive role football can have, though in a much more literal way than the typical high school experience. For the real-life inmates of the Kilpatrick correctional institution and their cinematic equivalents, the game of football is both a utility to destroy their violent affiliations with gangs and a metaphor for the redemption of their lives. It’s a familiar story that uses the old sport-as-salvation modus painted in the overly operatic and cloying tones we’re used to, but Gridiron manages to put its dramatic qualities to good use and maintain a verity of presentation that makes it better than average.

As were Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, and more recently, Invincible, this football flick is based on a true story, though with dramatic embellishments tossed around, and was already filmed as a documentary of the same name by Lee Stanley in 1993. The story concerns juvenile correction officer Sean Porter (The Rock), who comes to the grim realization that juvenile corrections itself is worthless when 75 percent of the inmates end up right back in jail. Porter endeavors, with the requisite bit of bureaucratic wrangling and skepticism, to start a football team that he hopes will rejuvenate the inmates’ self-esteem and put their lives to right. Those he selects for the team are the predictably spunky misfits united by a criminal past but otherwise showing no predilection for either football or working with one another.

Gridiron as a sports film is the exact song and dance viewers will be expecting it to be, with all its quirky personalities, inspirational speeches, operatic score, and disappointments before that final crescendo to victory, but the cast kept me suitably distracted from the platitudes in the writing. For one, most of the film’s youths are unknowns, and they all look and portray the parts of the troubled and incarcerated to surprising success. Secondly, while The Rock and Xzibit aren’t as much thespians as they are forces of personality, they fit their roles as tough-but-nurturing counselors to a T — especially The Rock, whose physical presence and furious demeanor make him more convincing as a coach than any action hero.

The believable cast anchors the story and makes it endearing, for all its clich├ęs. Director Phil Joanou also presents footage of the ‘93 documentary during the credits, so we can see that many of the seemingly melodramatic scenes in the film were actually based in real situations and dialogue. This bonus material managed to undermine my cynical assumptions that the film had no substantial goals beyond providing the predictable and sensational distraction characteristic of most sports films. At least this time the filmmakers seemed to have a point — in one of the movie’s final scenes, Coach Porter chides one of his players: “It’s only a game,” as if also to remind the audience that football isn’t the inherent point here, but the meaning it gives to those playing it. I wish more movies like this did the same.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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Making the Formula Work Again

Gridiron Gang / Phillip Stephens

Film | September 16, 2006 | Comments ()



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