Gridiron Gang review by Mike Long

It's the year 2007 and in order for someone to make an original movie about sports they will need to invent a new sport altogether. (Baseketball and Rollerball don't count.) And yet, sports movies keep coming, one after the other. Most of these do nothing to avoid the typical cliches and thus they begin to blur together. The standard storylines are present in Gridiron Gang, but the film offers an extra amount of character development which helps to elevate it above the norm.

Gridiron Gang is set at the Camp Kilpatrick juvenile detention center near Los Angeles. The facility houses young offenders and statistics show that 75% of the residents eventually either go to jail or die. This trend frustrates probation officer Sean Porter (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), so he decides to do something a little different. He starts a football team at Camp Kilpatrick, allowing the inmates to play. At first, the boys are interested in the team because it's something different. The bulk of them dislike and distrust one another -- some of them are from rival street gangs. Sean pushes the team and challenges them to actually work for something. He is able to convince a group of local high schools to play Camp Kilpatrick. Thus a real team is born. The team faces many challenges playing more organized and experienced teams, and they experience many frustrating moments. But, as the season progresses, the team begins to gel and the boys are able to work towards a common goal.

Get out your sports movie checklist and let's see how Gridiron Gang fares. Group of underdogs who no one believes in? Check. A team full of individuals who have no interest in getting along? Check. A coach, who is a former athlete, who wants to overcome past obstacles? Check. A key player who gets injured? Check. A traumatic event which changes the course of the season? Check. A final game where it all comes down to one play (which is then shot in slow motion)? Check. This movie has it all. The only thing that's missing is a love interest who interferes with everything and/or inspires a player...but there's actually a little bit of that here. Screenwriter Jeff Maguire hasn't missed a trick and ostensibly Gridiron Gang should be one of the most predictable movies ever made.

But, make no mistake, this isn't a pee-wee version of The Longest Yard. Gridiron Gang has some light moments, but most of the film is very serious, and it's this dramatic side which really lifts the film. To be honest, despite the subject matter, I had expected the movie to be a light-weight affair. This idea was quickly dashed aside as the first fifteen minutes contains some brutal moments where characters die. The movie lets you know that it's going to be a serious look at where these kids come from and how they live. Once the story focuses on the facility, the theme of gang violence and criminal living doesn't leave the film, as the character's pasts are always haunting them.

The movie also does a very good job with character development. Yes, many of the characters fit into stereotypical roles -- the outsider, the token White kid, etc. -- , but the fact that we actually get to know them really helps the movie. We get the back stories for the main characters and their tales intertwine in the main story. The most prevalent story deals with Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker) and Kelvin Owens (David V. Thomas), two boys who come from rival gangs. Their story creates a great deal of tension, and while they could easily be defined as two-dimensional thugs, their story arc makes things much more interesting.

While the drama boosts Gridiron Gang, the movie is still a football film at heart, and it offers some differences in that regard. Director Phil Joanou is best known for dramas (State of Grace) and documentaries (U2: Rattle and Hum), so I wasn't sure how he'd handle the football game scenes. Joanou has opted to continue with his theme of focusing on the individual characters in the football scenes. The scenes have a verite look for the most part, but Joanou also goes with many tight close-ups. We have grown so accustomed to seeing the whole field during football broadcasts, and it's jarring to see Joanou's approach where we are right in the facemasks of the players. Another thing that Gridiron Gang has in its favor is the overall tone of the film. Given the dramatic plot twists which the film offers, it can be hard to guess the outcomes of the games.

Gridiron Gang was a genuine surprise. Given the fact that it's a sports movie and the presence of The Rock, I had expected a cheesy, cliche-ridden movie. What I found was a film that does indeed have the cliches, but it goes much further. The movie is very emotional and gripping and it offers a variety of touching and shocking scenes. Based on a true story, Gridiron Gang certainly doesn't change the sports movie genre, but it brings a great deal of heart to it.

Gridiron Gang tackles DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The movie has come to DVD in two separate releases, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.40:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks very good, as it's quite sharp and clear. The bulk of the film takes place in the bright California sunshine, and there is minimal grain in these scene. There are no obvious defects from the source material. There were some artifacting issues at times, and I noticed video noise in the bleachers, but otherwise this is a solid transfer. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides very good audio. The dialogue is sharp and clear, showing no hissing or distortion. The game scenes sound great, as the cheering crowds fill the surround sound speakers, which the crushing blows can be felt via the subwoofer.

The Gridiron Gang offers a handful of extras. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from director Phil Joanou and writer Jeff Maguire. I really liked this talk as the two discussed how the opening of the film is meant to jar the viewer with its violence. They then go on to discuss the logistics of making the movie, touching on shooting the football scenes and what it was like to shoot at an actual detention center. They also touch on the elements of the film which do or do not reflect the real-life story. The DVD contains 15 DELETED SCENES which run about 23 minutes. These can be viewed with or without audio commentary from Joanou and Maguire. Most of these are incidental moments which fill in some very small gaps which are implied in the finished film. In "Gridiron Gang: Football Training" (6 minutes), football coordinator Alan Graf describes the training which the actors went through for the game scenes. There's lot of behind-the-scenes footage of the actors practicing. The "Phil Joanou Profile" (4 minutes) gives the director a chance to discuss the project. "The Rock Takes the Field" (4 minutes) examines the scene in which the former college player suits up. Finally, "Mulit-Angle Football Scene" shows how five cameras were used to shoot the game footage. There are clips from a 1993 documentary about the real "Gridiron Gang" shown during the closing credits of the film, and it would have been great if that documentary could have been included on this DVD, or at least interviews with the real-life coaches and players, but there are none to be had.

7 out of 10 Jackasses

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