"The Rock" -- formerly known as "Flex Kavana" and, a bit later, as "Rocky Maivia" -- was a working actor long before he turned to movies and started taking down $12 million paychecks. The happily deluded throngs who used to watch him lay signature moves like the People's Elbow or the ominously named Charging Double-Leg Spinebuster on his old nemesis, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, knew they were witnessing high art. It's not easy to sell fake violence when the real thing is all around us -- and the Rock always made a good show of it.
Since his training ground is not the Actors Studio, but the WWE, the player who bills himself these days as Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson sounds a bit, well, bogus, when he makes speeches about the differences between winning and losing. But that's exactly what he does through most of Gridiron Gang, a well-meant trifle about an idealistic corrections officer who starts up a football team at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. For those who've been living on the nonplanet Pluto, here's the message: "Losers" are guys with low self-esteem, who choose to shoot other guys in the head for no good reason; "winners" are guys who put on shoulder pads and helmets, and kick the crap out of other guys on the football field for no good reason.
Never mind this overlong film's obvious parallels -- and outright thefts -- from Remember the Titans and both versions of The Longest Yard. With director Phil Joanou (State of Grace, Final Analysis) at the helm and the Rock blowing the whistle, what we get is one huge, indigestible sports-movie platitude. The movie massages and manipulates us with a fervor bordering on shamelessness.
Johnson's fictionalized character, Sean Porter, seeks to combine the playbooks of Vince Lombardi, Dirty Harry Callahan, and Mother Teresa -- the football coach as tough-love rebel and no-nonsense slavedriver. Frustrated in his work as a youth counselor at hard-nosed Camp Kilpatrick, he has the usual suggestion for the warden: "Let's try the impossible." In this context, "impossible" means slapping a football team together in just three weeks, forming it from a collection of belligerent gangbangers, lumbering fat boys, and sweetly demented crack dealers. Among the variously appealing kids: Jade Yorker's troubled Willie Weathers, who's in the joint for shooting his mother's abusive boyfriend dead in their living room; rapper Xzibit as Malcolm Moore, a member of the rival gang that killed Willie's cousin; Trever O'Brien as the Mustangs' token white player, Kenny Bates; and Brandon Mychal Smith as the cute little waterboy who stabbed an old lady for her purse.
The Mustangs' season holds no surprises: Raw and disorganized, they lose game one to a sharp high school team 38-0, get over grave doubt and infighting in a 21-14 loss on their second Saturday, then reel off eight straight wins. Because they've become a family. Because football builds character (as long as your name is not O.J. Simpson or Maurice Clarett). And because Coach Porter is a great guy. It's the Charging Double-Leg Spinebuster of football-coach hero stories.