St. John Bosco attributed his success rehabilitating wayward youths in 19th-century Italy to one word: love.
It's the same weapon adopted by corrections officer Sean Porter (played by former professional wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) in fighting hopelessness among inmates at a Los Angeles juvenile detention camp in Gridiron Gang (Columbia), a sports drama that affirms how one person can make a difference.
Inspired by a true story, director Phil Joanou's uplifting film centers on Porter's efforts to redirect the lives of the youthful offenders under his watch. Despite formulaic plot elements, the film shows the heart of a winner, with emotional performances and a surprisingly strong redemptive message that'll leave you cheering. It's a story we've seen before, but it's a good one.
Having been a star player in high school, Porter comes up with the idea of organizing a football team — which he dubs “the Mustangs” — to teach the kids discipline and teamwork, while restoring their self-esteem. Hurdles include initial resistance from his superiors, Paul (Leon Rippy) and Ted (Kevin Dunn), and local high school coaches who are understandably uneasy about their students playing against felons, intense gang rivalries among the teammates and Porter's own personal demons.
But in the end his tough-love determination prevails, as the Mustangs make it to the regional championship, and do indeed turn their lives in a positive direction.
Johnson continues to be charismatic. But what really makes the film is the young ensemble, especially Jade Yorker as Willie, convicted for killing his mother's abusive boyfriend, and whose feud — and eventual bonding — with rival gang member and teammate Kelvin (David Thomas) fuels much of the story.
Parents should be warned that in trying to convey gritty reality, the film contains some strong violence — including a drive-by shooting — and there's a lot of raw street talk. But the film's theme of second chances is so commendable that it offsets those elements. Footage during the end credits of the real Porter and Mustangs players adds a nice touch and serves as a poignant punctuation to the film's underlying thesis that a little love can work wonders.
The film contains pervasive crude language, scattered profanity, an instance of the f-word, intense street violence, brief sexual humor, football roughness and a few racial slurs. Some parents may feel the worthy message makes it acceptable for older adolescents. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
(This review appears courtesy of US Conference of Catholic Bishop's Office for Film and Broadcasting.)