'Gridiron': fact-based fable about felons

The Baltimore Sun

GRIDIRON GANG -- Sony -- 28.95

On home video and theater screens, this January has become the month for fact-based inspirational fables, of heroic mentors helping to lift up city youths. Freedom Writers has been turning into a word-of-mouth hit at the multiplexes just as Gridiron Gang arrives on DVD Tuesday.

Gridiron Gang stars Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson as the real-life juvenile probation officer Sean Porter, who molded tough underage felons into a football team, the Mustangs. At Camp Kilpatrick, a "last-chance" juvenile-detention facility nestled against California's Santa Monica Mountains, Porter convinces his charges that they can change from losers to winners - if they overcome gang allegiances and put the team he forms first.

The story is potentially as rich as that of Freedom Writers, but director Phil Joanou follows the beats and rhythms of underdog-sports movies, not life.

Wide receiver Kenny Bates (Trevor O'Brien) can't even get his mom to stay for an entire visiting hour without fighting with her. Running back Willie Weathers (Jade Yorker) writes letters to a nice, college-bound girl whose father has been intercepting them. Guess who shows up to cheer Bates and Weathers for the final game?

Moviemakers like Joanou should think less about hooking an audience with the advertising legend "based on a true story" and more about using journalistic materials to strengthen a fictionalized piece's credibility and power. That's what actor-director George Clooney did, superbly, in Good Night, and Good Luck, interspersing kinescope footage of the McCarthy hearings with dramatized scenes of Ed Murrow's crusade to expose the hearings as an anticommunist witch hunt. In Gridiron Gang, it comes as a shock when the closing credits reveal that some of the flimsiest scenes emerged from a documentary also called Gridiron Gang.

Special features

Astoundingly, these features don't include the original 1993 documentary. The only fresh revelations about the factual story come from the audio commentary of Joanou and his screenwriter, Jeff Maguire. Joanou articulates a zesty appreciation for his youthful players, especially Brandon Mychal Smith as the effusive water boy, Bug, who skitters like a water bug through the shallows of this movie.



Walter Hill's Undisputed was the best action film of 2002, the swift, tough tale of a heavyweight boxing champ, Iceman Chambers, who lands in the slammer and discovers that the quickest way out is to fight the prison program's boxing champ.

In this straight-to-DVD sequel executed by new hands, Michael Jai White takes over from Ving Rhames to star as Iceman, who this time gets thrown into a gulaglike Russian penitentiary. The resident fighting champ here, Uri Boyka (Scott Adkins), is a master of mixed martial arts.

The film doesn't pretend to be more than red-meat-and-potatoes entertainment, and director Isaac Valentine knows how to frame a death leap or a karate chop. On the audio commentary, he swaps anecdotes with White and with Adkins, too, who humorously brags about inventing a move in which he jumps on an opponent's chest and then kicks him in the face. Their saga of filming a martial-arts picture in Bulgaria is more engaging than the actual movie.


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