A look back at The Rock’s career: Gridiron Gang

Our look back through The Rock's movie career continues with the 2006 American football drama, Gridiron Gang...

The last time I wrote about about Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, he was holding the WWE Championship for the eighth time and gearing up for a battle at Wrestlemania 29 against John Cena, a bland Hulk Hogan for Millennials. It was their second time headlining Wrestlemania and the follow-up to the previous year’s Once In A Lifetime match. It was not very good.

Some of this may have come from the fact that Johnson tore tendons from his pelvis in the match’s opening minutes; as he recovered from surgery, the necessity of challenging Cena anew faded, gratefully saving us all from the prospect of Once In A Lifetime: Pt III.

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Meanwhile, Fast & Furious 6 was released, grossed nearly five times its budget and Johnson walked away with summer 2013 in his back pocket.

By comparison, 2014 has been quiet. Johnson played the Greek hero Hercules for Brett Ratner, but has become culturally important for his contributions to meme culture via a bumbag photo and as the linchpin of a wider conversation about race (following an article in The Atlantic about racism in pro wrestling that willingly negated his time in the WWE. We’ll get there soon.)

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For the meantime, the coverage of the Rockography takes us back to 2006…

Gridiron Gang

Before The Rock could catchphrase his way into the hearts of America, there was Rocky Maivia, Flex Kavana and there was Dwayne Johnson, the 267lb Junior from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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At 19 years old, Johnson played backup defensive lineman for the Miami Hurricanes’ National Championship team before being sidelined from injuries. He was on the right team – Miami’s American college football team was so successful that it was experiencing a so-called Decade of Dominance – but wasn’t around long enough to enjoy it.

Orlando native Warren Sapp took Johnson’s place as defensive lineman, kicking off a career that would culminate in an appearance to the NFL Hall of Fame. While Sapp’s legendary career kicked off, Johnson moved to Canada to get abruptly cut from the Calgary Stampeders’ line-up. During his feud with Cena, Johnson would wax lyrical on the road to becoming a WWE ‘Superstar’: “Do you have any idea how much you’ve gotta suck to get cut from the Canadian Football league?”

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American football is a big part of The Rock story, because it anchors the star to some sort of reality. Where pro wrestling and The Rock are theatrical and overblown, American football is a homely tradition. If you wanted to be corny (and let’s make it clear, this film is corny so we’ll be okay), you could say it’s the most patriotic sport going.

There’s a reason the rest of the world couldn’t give it a name without the “American” prefix: it’s an irreplaceable piece of the national fabric. [For convenience’s sake, “American football” will be referred to from this point onwards as “football”.]

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Gridiron Gang is about football’s force as a redemption story. It’s based on a true story, a fact that the film is ecstatic to highlight by placing it in all caps: “TRUE STORY”. The film adapts the 1993 Lee Stanley-directed documentary of the same name, which followed Sean Porter, a senior counsellor at juvenile detention center Camp Kilpatrick. Johnson steps into Porter’s shoes and bursts through them, an iron-clad machine compared to the doughy everyman that the Porter real life looks like. 

Porter, frustrated at watching young men float in and out of criminal activity and incarceration, decides that there needs to be a change. He pitches the idea of building a football team around the inmates, and is given a shot by his bureaucratic bosses. Slowly, he finds ways to help redeem these troubled youths by instilling the virtues of the national sport: focus, loyalty, teamwork, the importance of wearing a protective cup.

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Quickly, he finds talents – a gang member that murdered his mother’s abuser (Jade Yorker, his scrunched-up face tailor-made for melodrama), an emotionally-charged bruiser (Setu Taase), a carjacker severely out of his depth (Trever O’Brien), et al. Can Porter use sport to successfully alter the paths of these young mens’ lives? Will they overcome the gang ties that threaten to break the team apart? Will the team – newly Christened the Kilpatrick Mustangs – make an impression on the football teams of the California Interscholastic Federation? Have you seen a sports movie before? I’m guessing that the answer to all four questions are “yes”.

Gridiron Gang presents itself as an inspiring film about sports, but actually exists as an Inspirational Movie, carrying out its throat-clench moments with almost cynical predictability. Director Phil Joanou and his cinematographer Jeff Cutter attempt to gruff up the glossy TRUE STORY narrative with zooms and shaky-cam, but end up negating it all with a colour palate that feels like living in the gaudiest of Instagram filters. It’s engineered for Big Emotions the same way a stirring beer advert is, and it’s helped along by Trevor Rabin’s Very Inspirational Score. You’re meant to feel uplifted, but every scene plays out in a mix of regal horns, passionate speechifying and slow-motion. From the beginning, you know where Joanou’s film is heading, and it’s an Inspirational Speech. When it arrives, it’s a KitKat thrown on top of a chocolate cake: too much, too late. 

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For what it’s worth, Joanou attempts to use Johnson’s physical presence to his benefit. Away from the game, the star struggles to make the hyper-bodied Johnson fit into the reality of a juvenile prison. When Johnson sits at a desk to carry out admin it seems a little ridiculous, like Goliath in business casual. In the bar-napkin subplot involving his mother’s slow hospital-bound death, Johnson is asked to lend dimensions to his on-screen Porter, leading to scenes of he and his mother (L Scott Caldwell) communicating in strained homilies, stretching Johnson’s megawatt grin to its limits. Here and in the scenes mentioning an absentee father, Johnson hits the emotional notes the same odd way a videogame character does in a cut-scene: awkwardly and unreal, but moving the damn story along nonetheless. Your finger itches for the Start button to skip it all.

But on the pitch – or gridiron if you follow the film’s lexicon – Johnson looks like a natural. He’s yelling, pointing, giving his young players barks of confidence, his wrestler’s syntax threatening to slip out. It works, though. Joanou’s film consists almost entirely of archetypes, and Johnson can fill that vortex. He’s not a character – let alone an actor – but he makes a mighty fine inspirational figure.

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In the film’s final game, Johnson delivers a dressing room speech that allows him to preen and pose and put a fist in the air. At the speech’s climax, he stands statuesque before his whooping team of redeemed delinquents, arm out and eyes straight ahead. You’re buzzed off his delivery, even though it’s more People’s Champ than Porter, Sean. Fair enough. In the same way that football anchors Johnson to reality, Johnson’s presence anchors Joanou to his archetypes – Hollywood’s shortcut to reality.

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