My grandfather began most of his lengthy lectures about the devilments of modernity with, "Back in my day..." Of course, when we kids heard those words it was time to sprint for the exit, even if it meant doing (gulp) homework. One of his favorite tirades was about the decline of civilization due to the fact that we "mollycoddle those foulmouthed criminals and cutthroats." He'd rant on that they were illiterates that only spoke in four-letter words. Then he's cough out, "We give 'em a TV for Murgatroid's sake." We weren't sure who Murgatroid was, but we knew that Gramps wanted criminals locked tight in a barren cell with no keys (or shipped to some distant land of their ancestors). And whether family members were in the lock-'em-up or the mollycoddle camp, everybody agreed that somebody needed to do something.
Gridiron Gang is about somebody who did something. Probation officer Sean Porter sees his own troubled youth reflected in the teens at the Camp Kilpatrick detention facility. And he's frustrated that he can't seem to help these boys pull themselves out of a desperate cycle of gang violence and crime. So he looks to something that turned him around as a boy. Football.
His superiors think it's a horrible idea, but eventually agree to a facility team. Of course, finding someone for them to play is another question. Who wants to play against criminals? But Porter and his colleague, Malcolm Moore, convince a Christian school league to let them play. There's another problem however. Porter has to put together a team (made up of kids who hate each other) in four weeks and match them against opponents who have worked together for years.
Coach Porter is a man with a compassionate fire to help kids in trouble. A drill sergeant of a coach, he pushes the kids and makes them face the truth about their gang life ("If you don't find an alternative, you're gonna die"), pointing them to a new self-respect and healthy disciplines. And when the boys start working together he also hands out words of encouragement ("You should be proud. You haven't heard that a lot have you? You earned it. Boys, it's a whole new world out there when you earn things").
In the midst of forming his team, the coach also has to deal with the pain of losing his mother who is dying of cancer. She's a gentle woman who, in spite of her personal suffering, lovingly supports her son. The team is touched by their coach's devotion to his failing mother and they chip in to buy her flowers and a birthday card. As for Coach Porter's dad, it's revealed that the man was hard driving and angry. In a tearful scene in which Porter lectures Willie about the power of forgiveness, the coach finally finds forgiveness in his own heart for his own father.
Willie and Kelvin are two boys on the team coming from different gangs gripped with hatred for each other. As the team develops, grudging respect develops and is nurtured. The two eventually become good friends—good enough for one of them to lay down his future gang status (if not his life) for the other. We see some of the young men gaining confidence through their positive choices, and one reunites with his mother.
When Porter and Moore talk to high schools in the area they are summarily rebuffed. However, when approaching a reluctant coach at a Christian school, Moore pleads their case by quoting scriptures, including Luke 6:37-38 and Matthew 7:1. The Christian coach realizes the truth in the words and welcomes them into the conference.
And that brings us to this: I can only hope that not all of the teams in that conference are from Christian schools, because some of the worst verbal abuse Willie and his teammates face comes from the lips of rival players.
Coach Porter's mom says that the first time she saw him step on the football field she knew he had a God-given talent.
While on a bus trip to a game, the boys hoot and leer at a pretty girl in a passing convertible. One of the boys yells out a sexual line at her about "quarterback sneaks" and "end zones." An equally crass come-on that involves the term "suck" is hurled at another girl. One boy struts out a smiling macho cliché that his protective cup isn't large enough. Girls in cheerleading uniforms reveal midriffs, a bit of cleavage and lots of leg.
Willie and his cousin, Roger, are walking with several guys on the street when attacked by a car full of machine gun toting gangbangers. One boy is shot in the chest and falls bloodied to the sidewalk. The others climb a chain-link fence to escape the careening car. But Roger is crushed and run over while in mid-climb. Willie tries to shoot Roger's killer but can't. When Willie returns home he finds his mother bruised from an abusive beating. He confronts her boyfriend. Their conflict erupts into a fight that smashes the living room furniture. Afraid and angry, Willie pulls his pistol and begins firing, killing the man.
On several occasions the boys in the detention camp get into fistfights (especially Willie and Kelvin) over their mutual 'hood hatred. One boy sneaks out of bed, wraps his pillowcase around his knuckles and mercilessly beats on another boy who's asleep in his bunk. A member of Willie's gang shows up and shoots Kelvin. (Willie jumps in to save Kelvin's life.)
Of lesser note: Football violence is to be expected with a movie like this. But these high schoolers seem to crunch into each other with the force and sound of bull elephants wrapped in Japanese kikou. To toughen him up, Coach Porter forces Willie to try to knock him over. Willie crashes to the ground repeatedly.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A couple of comments reference getting drunk and "selling rocks."
Other Negative Elements
Coach Porter swears and rants at the boys several times. He also uses a rolled up magazine to smack Willie around to make him wake up (literally, and figuratively). Worse, he doesn't always model ethical behavior for the boys. In order to get their team uniforms, he signs for an unauthorized $10,000 purchase order. When confronted, he lets it be known that he's counting on the slowness of governmental justice to allow him to finish out the season.
My Gramps would probably think Coach Porter was a little too soft. He'd croak, "Why are we sending these kids to football camp? They're killers and cutthroats." But I'd point out to him that the movie does a good job of showing a man with a passion to help troubled kids. It is a bit sappy from time to time and The Rock (though he sure looks the part) is a few yards shy of scoring with the film's emotional demands. But its inspirational story, accompanied by a soaring musical score, is relatively cheer-worthy.
However, I'd have to agree with my grumbling Gramps when it comes to what he might have said about this kind of movie's violence and language. In an effort to give the characters more gritty realism, the filmmakers loaded the picture down with a lot of unnecessary gang violence and foulmouthed banter. It's a fumble that steals away much of the appeal.
Over the credits run short clips of the documentary on which the movie is based. And I have to admit that I found those snippets (of kids even Gramps would feel for) even more emotionally engaging than the preceding two hours. Which only goes to show that there truly is a good story here ... if only it was told with more than four-letter words.