"Here we go again" was all I could think to myself as I sat down to review 'Gridiron Gang,' the latest in a series of sports movies to hit high-def. Having watched 'Invincible,' 'Glory Road,' 'Seabiscuit' and 'Field of Dreams' in the span of just a few weeks, I frankly wasn't sure how many more of these feel-good, underdog tales I could take. With 'Gridiron Gang,' we have not only another formulaic football flick in fabulous high-definition, but one starring The Rock in a rare dramatic role, and a story so saccharine sweet that repeated viewings may cause tooth decay. I wasn't not sure whether to call the dentist, or a shrink.
All kidding aside, 'Gridiron Gang' is perhaps the most inspiring of the true-life "underdog" sports movie wave, which is saying alot. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson toplines as Sean Porter, an idealistic counselor at a youth detention center who starts a football program. Hoping to better both himself and the kids that society has left behind, his rigorous training and "tough love" discipline helps the team earn self-confidence. Based on true events (and developed from a documentary about the real Sean Porter) the 'Gridiron Gang' benefits from an authenticity and timeliness that handily makes it more than just a 'Remember the Titans'-esque civics lesson. For the kids of 'Gridiron Gang,' winning the big game is more than just a sport, it could well be salvation.
Criticizing 'Gridiron Gang' is a bit like throwing rocks at the Easter Bunny. It is earnest, inspiring, emotionally rousing and fully aware of its utterly conventional nature. In fact, it is so upbeat it turns every single liability of the genre into an asset by finding beauty in the expected. Every last hoary cliche of the "feel-good" sports flick has been refined into such a sweet, sugary goo that I couldn't help but marvel. Director Phil Joanou ('U2 Rattle and Hum,' 'State of Grace') always makes good-looking movies, and 'Gridiron Gang' is no exception -- it is extremely well cast, acted, shot and edited. By the virtue of the talent involved, the pedestrian is elevated if not to the level of the truly inspired than at least to a point where it raises the bar for the genre. And what 'Gridiron Gang' lacks in surprise and originality it makes up for in raw emotion. It's like one of those Oprah episodes where she buys a starving family a new car and an iPod. You don't question the motives, you just grab the box of tissues and applaud like a trained seal.
But the biggest surprise of 'Gridiron Gang' is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. I wouldn't call myself a real fan of his work, but I have enjoyed his past performances, particularly in superior action flicks like 'The Rundown.' Here, he plays it absolutely straight, and lends such a powerful sense of gravitas to the role that it is hard to believe he was once just another dumb wrestler-turned-actor seemingly on the path to Dolph Lundgren-like obscurity. Far more than just his sheer physical size, it seems to be Johnson's innate belief in the material that allows him to deliver cheesy lines like, "I know you're not going to quit. You've got spirit!" with heartfelt aplomb. I truly expected to laugh, but instead, I came away with a true admiration for his dramatic talents. I never would have believed it, but 'Gridiron Gang' won me over, and left me excited about what The Rock is going to do next. Maybe I really do need a shrink...
'Gridiron Gang' is the latest 1080p/MPEG-2 release from Sony, and is further proof that the much-maligned codec deserves a sincere reevaluation. I was one of the chorus of naysayers early on, and I'm still not a fan of many early Blu-ray transfers. But starting with Sony's 'Tears of the Sun,' most of the studio's MPEG-2 output has been quite impressive. And coming after 'The Covenant,' which I just gave a five-star video rating to only yesterday, 'Gridiron Gang' is up there with the best of what might be called the "second coming" of MPEG-2.
Presented in 2.40:1 widescreen, the source print is in excellent shape, as expected for a new release. There is a thin veil of grain throughout, but it adds a bit of a film-like appearance to a transfer that has otherwise been digitally spiced up. Contrast is a bit high, and there is some harsh crushing in the shadows, but detail remains eye-catching. I could detect even the smallest pores on The Rock's face, and every bead of sweat on the players' brows. Colors are nicely saturated and free of noise (though perhaps a notch below the richness of the most vivid recent Blu-ray transfers I've seen). I was also impressed with how sharp and relatively smooth the image appears -- this one doesn't look nearly as "hard" as early MPEG-2 releases. Though maybe not a true five-star transfer, 'Gridiron Gang' looks mighty fine.
Another uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track from Sony, and another winner. Though much continues to be made of next-gen audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD (and I of course am a huge fan as well), it is easy to forget that plain ol' PCM can be pretty darn dandy in its own right. 'Gridiron Gang' is a well-oiled, big-muscled machine, and provides plenty of bone-crunching sonic fun.
In fact, the film's sound design may be too forceful. Dialogue is often overpowered by all the crunches and crashes on the football field, and I did have to balance out the volume frequently. That aside, in terms of sheer dynamics, 'Gridiron Gang' is first-rate. Deep bass is powerful, and even the most minute sound effects, such as the sound of cleats in astroturf or a football touching skin, sound absolutely real. I wasn't a huge fan of the film's nondescript, mawkish score, but it sounds nice in the mix, and the strings have a particularly palpable, warm feel. Despite the dialogue issue, 'Gridiron Gang' is a very fine soundtrack.
Hitting Blu-ray at the same time as the standard-def DVD release, 'Gridiron Gang' benefits from the maturation of the BD-50 dual-layer format -- no extras are lost, and even better, both the Deleted Scenes and a five-part Multi-Angle Demonstration are presented in full 1080p video (alas, the featurettes, though shot in 16:9, are oddly presented in windowboxed 480p only).
First up is an audio commentary with director Phil Joanou and screenwriter Jeff Maguire. Unfortunately, this was a bit too technical for my taste. Joanou is articulate but rather dry, focusing almost solely on the lighting, construction and editing of each scene, etc., to the detriment of almost everything else. Even the presence of Maguire fails to really flesh out the story, beyond the normal compression and elimination of plot points and characters. Given the fascinating true-life tale behind 'Gridiron Gang,' and the fact that the movie is not a razzle-dazzle action spectacle, I wanted more here. How about getting Sean Porter himself in on the fun? Now, that would have been a great commentary.
Better is the 29-minute suite of three featurettes. "Football Training," "Phil Joanou Profile" and "The Rock Takes the Field" really function as single, cohesive entity, and are just robust enough without overdoing it. Sure, everyone here is typically fawning -- The Rock love Joanou, Joanou loves The Rock, everyone loves the kids, etc. -- but these are really more video diaries, with lots of on-set footage nicely off-setting the usual talking heads. Nothing earth-shaking here, but good stuff.
No less than fifteen Deleted Scenes are also included. Contrary to what Joanou and Maguire say in the commentary, I actually thought much of this material was strong enough that it didn't matter if it slowed down the film's pace. For me, a movie like 'Gridiron Gang' lives and dies by its characters, and there are some true gems in this collection of outtakes. There is even a little subplot about Porter's alleged abuse of a young inmate, and I quite liked Johnson's more baroque acting in these scene. In any case, the high-quality, 1080p video at least gives this excised material its full due.
Also nice is a five-segment Multi-Angle Football Scene. Select from five different angles, or a separate composite of all. Admittedly, none of these demonstrations are all that exciting -- the football scene in question is pretty standard stuff -- but tech geeks should get a kick out of it. And again, this easily tops the standard-def presentation, presented full 1080p.
Last but not least we have a quartet of Theatrical Trailers for other Sony titles, but sadly no love for 'Gridiron Gang' itself. Even more frustrating, all the previews are presented in full 1080p video and Dolby Digital 5.1 and look and sound great -- too bad the trailer for the actual film we're paying for isn't supported with equal care.
'Gridiron Gang' is not a great sports movie, but it is impeccably produced and indeed quite moving. I was even more impressed with the performance by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in a rare dramatic role. Given the very nice transfer, soundtrack and extras, this is a sure recommend for fans of the film, and also worth a look for the curious.