Wanna know why sports movies are criticized for being too cliché? Because sports, as a whole, are too cliché. We've been trained to root for the underdog, though it's conventional when that come-from-behind victory is shown on screen. Teams are expected to win games on last-play drives. How is a filmmaker supposed to wring suspense from such a scenario when it happens every night on SportsCenter?
For a sports film to succeed on its own terms, audiences must be able to look beyond the requisite storytelling crutches that bolster this limited genre and find something else worth discussing. In Gridiron Gang, that extra something else is heart, which this flick has in spades.
Gang follows the biographical story of Sean Porter to the letter - footage of the real coach played alongside the end credits shows him barking actual lines we heard minutes before in the film. Charismatically intimidating Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson personifies Porter, a juvenile correctional facilities counselor who uses football as a means to unite his divided charges.
Gang plays as a junior varsity Longest Yard, with hardened teenage criminals learning to shelve their street-bred differences and play together as a team. It shows these kids at rock bottom so we can best appreciate how Porter and his program brings them back up.
Instead of one game against the guards, these kids shoulder a full season against polished private squads. Rock wears many hats both on the field and off - counselor, coach, bouncer, mentor, friend - and each one fits him like a glove. The wrestler continues to find projects that utilize his physical assets, as well as his rugged charm.
The underdog formula gets the better of director Phil Joanou (State of Grace), who pushes our buttons hard but manages to motivate without fully manipulating. He could stand to trust his audience more than he does. Most can figure when to stand and cheer without obvious cues from Trevor Rabin's desperate score. Also, Joanou adores slow-motion photography for his in-game shots. Not one or two shots, but every single frame of football action. If these sequences were played at full speed, Gang would be 30 minutes shorter, and the reduction in running time would help.
As it stands, the gritty Gang delivers last-second heroics, surprising amounts of humor, and the beating heart of an unexpected champion. Let's put it into football terms. This motivational cheerer isn't a flashy wide receiver or a star quarterback. It's the stocky, reliable running back who drops his shoulder, breaks a few tackles, and picks up tough yards on the way to a moral victory.