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MOVIE REVIEW

'Gang' is a contender, not a cliche

As long as there are young men dying on America's streets, Hollywood will continue to promise that the key to salvation includes basketball, spelling, or the unstoppable wisdom of Michelle Pfeiffer. Sometimes, in the case of last spring's neglected "Akeelah and the Bee," or "Gridiron Gang," which opens today, the inspirational hogwash takes a back seat to the realities of the crisis at hand.

Good filmmaking and complex characters cut away at the contempt familiarity breeds for based-on-a-true-story tales. And "Gridiron Gang" is well enough made to not leave you too terribly rankled when the pallid documentary footage that plays during the closing credits suggests that this healthier-looking football movie appears to be a shot-for-shot remake.

Still, despite the shameless cutting and pasting, it's hard to argue with the movie's intentions. ``Gridiron Gang" is set at Camp Kilpatrick, a Los Angeles County juvenile detention compound whose delinquents are merely waiting to rejoin their street gangs or resume their lives of petty crime.

Having lost his last recidivist gang banger in a drive-by, probation officer and former high-school football star Sean Porter (Dwayne ``The Rock" Johnson) decides to impose the sport's discipline on his young charges. The administrators are expectantly resistant (Porter is setting them up to fail, goes the argument), and the kids are self-doubting and skeptical. Obviously, it all works out: the Kilpatrick Mustangs have a pretty good maiden season.

But the movie's inevitabilities (the humiliating loss, the ebb and flow of camaraderie, the triumphant finale) have deep resonance. If the actors playing the Kilpatrick residents are tough and charismatic, they also have stores of hurt. These are young men who know the odds are against them, and not because this is the sort of movie that beats you over the head with grim statistics (although it is just that sort of movie).

Porter takes an interest in Willie (Jade Yorker), whose slain cousin was one of Porter's old causes, while taking time to escort his own gravely ill mother (L. Scott Caldwell) to her hospital appointments. Those developments would leave any other movie feeling hopelessly rigged, but this flinty picture needs whatever teary release it can get, however cheap. Not that Johnson is immune to feeling. His masculine sensitivity holds the film together.

The veteran director Phil Joanou and screenwriter Jeff Maguire refuse to keep the kids' outside worlds from intruding on their reasonably safe prison life. Porter and his assistant Malcolm Moore (Xzibit, the rapper and host of ``Pimp My Ride") are paternal saints compared with the inhumanity outside Kilpatrick. The gang bangers we see are like terrorists. Indeed, contrary to most uplifting sports dramas, street life in this movie is meaner and scarier than any of the football plays.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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