One of the things I hate worst about most football movies is that the night games seem to be played during a power outage. This frustrating trend became popular years ago, beginning with the opening scene of Tony Scott's The Last Boy Scout (1991), during which Damon Wayans' Jimmy Dix scampers around a football field seemingly lit with a single desk lamp. I think I had more light than that when I played tipsy-touch football in UW's Red Square at 2 AM one November morning in 1982. It's unsafe, and it's silly.
So part of the really good news of Gridiron Gang—which I fully expected to be a pigskin full of cliches given the obvious pandering opportunities with the MTV/BET and NFL audiences—is that the football games are all played in broad daylight.
The better part of the good news is that Gridiron Gang actually works, in spite of the presence of "The Rock." In fact, I can actually respect the fact that Mr. Rock bills himself on this film using his real name, Dwayne Johnson. Johnson believes in this material, and connects with it deeply himself.
Like the real-life Johnson, the movie deals with juvenile delinquents only one poor choice away from death or a life in jail. While Johnson was steered toward sports just prior to a trip to the slammer, Gridiron Gang tells the more-or-less true story of how corrections officers Sean Porter and Malcolm Moore used football to redirect the lives of California juvenile inmates. Porter played high school ball, while Moore had some NFL experience; and when they grow frustrated with institutional Business as Usual, they introduce discipline, order, and respect in the form of the Mustangs, the facility's own football team. In their first season, they overcome gang history and personal tragedy on their way to the regional championship game.
The story has its share of familiar threads—the Cinderella story, dying family members, personal struggles with the past—but the way in which the story is told reminds us that the real world is a lot messier than most Hollywood screenplays. Winning isn't the only thing that matters; nor is it the only thing that changes reality.
What's best is that the movie is truly inspirational. It reminds us that loyalty and teamwork—the kind that the Apostle Paul talks about in I Corinthians 12—can overcome the deepest of hurts and resentments. It reminds us that reconciliation is a worthy calling, as Paul mentions in II Corinthians 5. It reminds us that loving one’s enemy—as Jesus called for in Matthew 5—is not just a pie-in-the sky ideal but possible in this very real and very messy world.
I don't often recommend a movie, because personal tastes differ so wildly; but I will make an exception in this case. Just don't expect a rose-tinted, feel-good, shock-free experience. Gridiron Gang shows us the dark side of the 'hood and the light side of redemption—and it tells it all true.