They've ended up there for a variety of offenses: dealing drugs, knocking off liquor stores, murder. Based on a true story, the movie follows the efforts of probation officer Sean Porter (Johnson) to reform these hard-luck cases by teaching them to play football. That sounds like a sentimental cliché, and "Gridiron Gang" gives you very little reason to believe it's anything else, despite some statistics thrown in at the end purporting to show that alumni of the football cure are less likely than their fellow inmates to wind up back in jail or dead on the street.
Early in the film, we're taken to the streets of South Central L.A., where we witness a horrific drive-by shooting. One gang member, Willie (Jade Yorker), escapes with his life, only to engage in some murderous, spur-of-the-moment gunplay of his own, the dreadful consequences of which land him in jail.
This introductory sequence has the grim feel of authenticity and shows just how trapped the boys are in a perverse, death-dealing culture of honor, where looking at someone the wrong way or finding oneself on the wrong street corner can lead to swift, senseless execution. But these scenes also make nonsense of the by-the-book tale of redemption through sports that follows. The movie does such a good job of sketching urban devastation that it makes the saving power of bashing people on the line of scrimmage seem like a pipe dream.
The one man who won't give up on these kids is, of course, their coach. His theory is that if he can get the boys to identify with the team, he can overcome their devotion to their gangs. He informs them that each is "no longer a Blood or a Crip, but a Mustang" (the team mascot). (A similar strategy is being tried out wherever people are assured that they are no longer Shiite or Sunni, but Iraqi, with who knows what success.)
Even here, though, The Rock's thinking gets muddy. One moment he's telling them that they must "do it together, work as one." The next moment he's saying that on the field, "you've got nobody but yourself." Ultimately, the whole scheme seems to stem from the American faith in the purifying effects of properly channeled violence, underlined here by director Phil Joanou's decision to depict the games as nonstop orgies of bone-crunching pile-ons. The team seems less like a band of brothers than a troop of desperadoes temporarily held in check by devotion to a warlord with a heart of gold.
The Rock is an undeniably appealing presence, but the role calls for something more, and he does not provide it. Coach Porter, we learn, comes from a troubled home himself, but The Rock finds no way to bring his alleged emotional scars to the surface. This man of steel is also supposed to be humanized in a series of weepy encounters with his expiring mother (L. Scott Caldwell). These scenes accomplish little except to add to the film's excessive two-hour length.
The closest we come to a fully developed character is Willie, and Yorker does a good job of making us believe in this confused young man's desire to be better, even as he occasionally relapses into the ways of gang life. What's missing from the film, however, is much sense of these kids as individuals. We never see them talking realistically among themselves about their lives, their crimes, their girlfriends, their families that would keep The Rock off screen for an unacceptable stretch. As a result, most of the boys emerge as little more than cobbled-together symbols of doomed youth.
"Gridiron Gang" means well, but the small mountain of film clichés it deals in the dying mom, the refractory teammate, the Big Game turns its intended message of hope into just another bit of shtick. (PG-13) 120 min. ** S