Johnson plays Sean Porter, a counselor at a youth prison filled with gang members, thieves and a couple of killers to boot. The kids, not surprisingly, are at each other's throats within the confines of their small barracks, so Porter hatches a plan to get them into fresh air and to play some football.
All sorts of obstacles stand in his way. The kids are of high school age, so in order to play ball, other high schools will have to put their teams on the field with them, and that seems risky for most coaches. Inevitably (because there wouldn't be a movie if they didn't), some teams find a way to make it happen, and the bad kids are going to get a chance to make good by scoring touchdowns and kicking the unholy shit out of each other.
Some of the incarcerated boys are from rival gangs, so they scowl at each other and score some dirty hits. Others have major mommy issues, as does Porter, whose mom is in the hospital fighting for her life. It all has a nice spirit about it, but the presentation and dialogue make it all pretty hokey.
As for the football action, like the recent Invincible, the movie does a nice job with the bone-crunching hits. The play is sloppy enough to make it feel like real high school sports as opposed to the cinematic fantasyland where a 17-year-old throws a perfect spiral every time. The cast of relative unknowns are all given moments to shine, and some of them actually transcend the goopy script.
I was sitting on the fence with Gridiron Gang, undecided as to where I was going to come down with my opinion. Then The Rock got dressed in a skimpy football uniform so that he could go toe-to-toe with one of his players lacking confidence. Maybe this happened in real life, but I'm telling you, it's laugh-out-loud funny in this movie, and that's not a good thing.
From that moment on, any sense of credibility the film had built up gets lost. Everything goes perfectly for these kids by finale time. (The bad stuff that happens to some of them is revealed in a Rock voiceover during a victory montage.) I suppose if you're going to make a real film about real gang members trying to play football and get along, it's going to be a little uglier than this one. The movie's super-clean sheen feels a bit dishonest.
The film is directed by Phil Joanou. He's the stylish guy who was supposed to be the next big thing when he helmed U2: Rattle and Hum, which put the world to sleep. (Except for me: I'm a diehard U2 fan, and I loved that flick, even with Bono pontificating over his stupid "When Love Comes to Town" lyrics.) This is probably his best work since then, but it still isn't quite up to snuff. His film is visually strong, but it lacks emotional depth.
The end credits show some of the people who inspired the story, and some actual footage of the real boys on the field. (The Rock delivers a speech that is almost word for word what his character's real-life counterpart says in the footage.) Personally, I would've rather watched a full documentary on the real kids rather than this hackneyed contraption.