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The Independent Critic

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Xzibit, Jade Yorker, Trever O'Brien
Phil Joanou
Jeff Maguire
120 Mins.
 "Gridiron Gang" Review 
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There is a village.

I believe this village is in Eastern Pennsylvania. It is a friendly village filled with mothers who wipe away every tear from their children's eyes, even the most downtrodden person overcomes their past and, every Friday night, the big game is always won by the good guys and, well, those nasty bad guys learn their lessons.

In this village, movies are very popular. There are many talented actors and actresses in this village. They will make you laugh, make you cry and, gosh darn it, they will make you feel good about life in nearly every film they make.

The actors and actresses who live in this village, aptly named the village of Cliche', are all very excited this week because their new film, "Gridiron Gang," is opening in a theater near you...and, gosh darn it, nearly every actor and actress in the whole village has been cast in this dandy little feel-good film.

The whole gang is led in the film by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Coach Porter. You remember "The Rock" don't you? He used to bash people's heads in for a living, but here he's teaching these incarcerated youths at Camp Kilpatrick that violence is not the answer by teaching them how to legally tackle and beat down their opponents as a team.

Lesson #1: A "team" should never be confused with a "gang." A "gang" is violent for no purpose at all other than honor and defending homies. A "team" actually gets points for their violence. That makes it okay.

Coach Porter, who starts out as some sort of residential counselor, is wrestling with his own demons. This is necessary, the actors and actresses of Cliche' tell me, because it explains why the Coach is so big on tough love and pushes the kids so hard. It wouldn't make sense to have the coach actually just care about the kids. What's cliche' about that?

"The Rock," aptly named for his acting style, has expanded his acting ability to include the famous Denzel Washington "finger point" and the inspirational coach "rah rah rah...I believe in you guys" speech. He even cries towards the end of the film when he's encouraging a bitter young man to forgive his father even though, in his own words, he'd just forgiven his own father "right now."

That's an interesting counseling style. Have the youth become healthier than the adult role model, counselor, coach.

Of course, the rest of the actors and actresses from the valley of Cliche' also have their chances to shine. OHHHHHH, and they do with such heartfelt monologues and confrontations and tears and fights and winning touchdowns and all the things that will reaffirm your faith in humanity.

There's Willie (Jade Yorker), whose cousin was just murdered in a gangland revenge killing. Of course, killings don't happen much in the village of Cliche'. When they do, however, you can be darn sure there's a really good reason for it. Willie went home after the shooting and, gee whiz, his mom had let back in her old, abusive boyfriend who promptly went whup ass on her. Well, this made Willie mad. So, Willie shot him three times in the chest. Sometimes, that is what has to happen in the village of Cliche'.

Then, there's the angry, ultraviolent Junior (Setu Taase). He's been in and out of Camp Kilpatrick, but now that there's a football team he wants to turn his life around so he can be a role model for his two-year-old child. This is sweet, and Taase, in his first film role, is one of the strongest parts of "Gridiron Gang."

There's Bug (Bug Wendal), a small and always smiling young man who is too little to play football but makes a gosh darn wonderful waterboy. In one of the funnier lines, Coach Porter says aloud "I wonder if he was smiling when he stabbed that old lady for her purse."

Hmmmmm. I guess smiling doesn't make you a good person, after all.

There's lots of other characters. There's a member of Willie's enemy gang. Oh my, they will have lots of conflicts. They have to, don't they? After all, that makes it more meaningful when we finally reach the inspirational ending.

There's, of course, the token white guy, Kenny Bates (Trever O'Brien). He just wants to be loved by his mother. He's in Camp Kilpatrick for stealing a Nissan Sentra (I guess we should say stupid white guy). O'Brien does a very nice job fleshing out his character from the village of Cliche'.

Of course, there are bad parents, innocent girlfriends, mean old bureaucrats and lots of other characters from the village of Cliche'.

If you think about it for about 15 seconds, "Gridiron Gang" sounds a lot like "The Longest Yard, Jr." In fact, it really IS a lot like "The Longest Yard," but both versions of "The Longest Yard" are more emotional, funnier and, well, better films.

Director Phil Joanou (He's done a bunch of stuff including U2 videos) does an okay job, but there sure are a lot of close-up camera shots and slow-motion football shots. Maybe that's so we can understand how important that scene is to the film.

Jeff Maguire wrote the script based upon a documentary by Jac Flanders. That's sort of funny, because a lot of the really cliche' dialogue is in the documentary actually being spoken by the real life Coach Porter.

I guess that means that sometimes life really is a cliche'.

It would be really hard to hate "Gridiron Gang," gosh darn it. When we learn at the end of the film that only five of the original 32 players ended up back in juvenile, as opposed to the usual 75%, it's enough to bring a tear to your eyes.

It almost did mine.

"Gridiron Gang" isn't a good film.

"Gridiron Gang" isn't a bad film.

"Gridiron Gang" is a typical, feel-good sports film with nearly every sports cliche' ever captured on film. Yet, somehow, "Gridiron Gang" never manages to reach the heights of, say "Glory Road," nor the crass, manipulative depths of many sports films. Blessed by a cast that seems to grasp the message even when the script itself betrayed them, "Gridiron Gang" is a tolerable film for a group of kids who, despite tremendous odds, overcame their past and created the promise of a better future.

That's NOT cliche' and it deserved a better film than "Gridiron Gang." 
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic