First, a personal disclaimer: My saturation point for inspirational sports melodramas — particularly the kind in which economic and racial inequities are redressed through the “miracle” of amateur athletics — is very low.
About one movie every two years, I would estimate. More than that, and my cinematic immune-defense systems light up like the FCC switchboard after Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl boob-bearing mishap.
As such, “Gridiron Gang” — starring former pro wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a juvenile corrections officer who molds a fractious, violent group of boys into a cohesive football powerhouse — is at an immediate disadvantage. After “Glory Road,” “Coach Carter” and, just a few weeks ago, “Invincible,” this critic is already several tokes over the line.
Of course, not every movie fan is so impaired. For devotees of the genre, “Gridiron Gang” — in its own, inoffensively formulaic way — may do the job. But can we please dispense with the myth that Johnson (“Walking Tall”) is remotely serviceable as a dramatic actor? He doesn’t do the eyebrow trick anymore, but he still cuts a vaguely inhuman figure. Wouldn’t he be more comfortable slaying dragons, or Rock Bottoming the likes of Steve Austin, than mustering crocodile tears over a group of troubled kids?
And, yet, here he is, playing corrections counselor Sean Porter, a good man (and ex-college football star) discouraged by the horrendous recidivism rates at the Los Angeles-area juvenile facility where he works. Within five years of leaving Camp Kilpatrick, 75 percent of the boys will either be dead or back in jail. “We’re barely making a dent!” he huffs.
Inspired to make a difference, Porter starts a football team, a prospect that’s met with enthusiasm by the boys and standard-issue bureaucratic skepticism by his rival administrator (Kevin Dunn, in a thankless role). Before long, Crips are taking snaps with Bloods, cholos are handing off to gubachos and director Phil Joanou — best known as U2’s “Rattle and Hum” archivist — is laying out a token game plan of adversity, set-back and triumph.
As the filmmakers remind us on several occasions, “Gridiron Gang” is based on a true story (and an early ’90s reality TV show of the same name). Not to sound crass, but who cares? Mediocre melodrama is mediocre melodrama. We can admire the real-life kids for getting their act together, but we don’t have to like the embellished fiction that beatifies them.
>> Rated PG-13 (some startling scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language), 102 min. Grade: C