To say “Gridiron Gang” is predictable is an understatement.
This sports film follows the same formula as films like “Glory Road” and “Invincible,” with a ripped from the headlines story about overcoming the odds, and isn't a movie with any surprises - except that it manages to work, despite obvious flaws.
Anchored by a strong performance from former WWE champion Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “Gridiron Gang” is based on the true story of Sean Porter, a counselor at a California juvenile detention center who organized a football team in hopes of teaching teenagers there is more to life than drugs, gangs and violence.
The team becomes a success on the field - eventually playing for a state championship.
To its credit “Gridiron Gang” doesn't shy away from the rough surroundings many of these kids came from (although it is lightened enough to get the film a family friendly PG-13 rating). Some of the film's most effective moments come early, when we see a teenager released only to find himself caught up in the middle of a neighborhood gang war.
Director Phil Joanou also has a keen eye for the game sequences (even if every hit looks like it could end the career of Ray Lewis). The big game finale is predictable, but effective.
What really makes “Gridiron Gang” enjoyable is Johnson, who really seems to capture the passion and determination of Porter. Johnson is never going to be confused with Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro, but he has enough talent as an actor to understand his limitations and pick roles suited for his talents. His choice here is perfect, giving Johnson the best role of his young career.
“Gridiron Gang” probably isn't a film that will appeal to non-sports fans, but it's just good enough to give football fans something to do before the next kickoff.
DVD dandy of the week
This week's dandy is “Thank You for Smoking” (A-) - a razor-sharp satire that's smart and funny and features a great performance by Aaron Eckhart. It's been almost 10 years since Eckhart first broke on the scene in “In the Company of Men,” but this may be the first film since that captures his incredible talents.
Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for Big Tobacco.
Naylor's best asset is his gift for gab.
“Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk,” Naylor says at one point, and his words prove accurate.
Naylor is so good, he can convince an angry studio audience at a talk show it's in the best interest of tobacco that a teen smoker stricken with cancer lives because his death will mean they lose a valuable customer. He can also convince a congressional hearing that eating cheese is more harmful than smoking, because cholesterol kills more people.
While Naylor's professional career is blossoming, his home life isn't. Naylor is divorced and struggling to connect with his son, Joey (Cameron Bright), although that changes when Naylor takes him on a business trip to California. The father and son begin to bond, but his newfound happiness leads Naylor to question his own morals.
Director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman) adapted the screenplay from Christopher Buckley's novel and does a nice job of keeping the humor in “Smoking” dark. Naylor isn't the greatest of guys, but there is a goodness deep within - even if his motives are out of whack.
Eckhart handles his role with precision, making Naylor sympathetic.
Eckhart is aided by a talented supporting cast. Maria Bello and David Koechner are very funny as lobbyists for the alcohol and gun industries who meet with Naylor once a week to discuss each other's latest strategies. William H. Macy has a nice turn as a Vermont senator trying to bring down Naylor and tobacco, and Robert Duvall has a great cameo as well.
Only Katie Holmes, as a reporter with whom Naylor becomes romantically involved, seems out of place.
But that's a small gripe for a film so smart and daring. “Smoking” may not be a film for everyone's taste, but for people who like to think as much as they like to laugh - it's a film for you.
“Thank You for Smoking” is rated R for language and some sexual content and is available on DVD on Oct. 3.