In “The Replacements,” most of the smooth moves come from a well-thumbed playbook, and no key player bothers to go outside the lines while tackling his stereotypical role. Even so, pic scores as a late-summer crowd-pleaser with strong sleeper potential. Though probably not a contender for Hall of Fame status, the film figures to post strong numbers on the theatrical scoreboard and generate even more impressive action on the homevid playing field.
Smartly positioned to break wide in North America during the NFL preseason, pic is a frankly formulaic but agreeably funny comedy about has-beens, wannabes and never-weres recruited by team owners during a strike by pro footballers. Vince McKewin’s by-the-numbers script obviously is based on the true-life misadventures of replacement players employed during the 1987 NFL strike. That no one in “Replacements” ever mentions the real-world precedent only adds to the air of unreality that permeates this feel-good fantasy. (Try to imagine, say, a movie about a space-shuttle disaster in which no one ever mentions the ill-fated Challenger mission.) But updating the fact-based story to contemporary times was a shrewd decision: Controversies about overpaid and under-appreciative players in all pro sports are even hotter topics now than they were a decade ago.
Very early in the game, the makers of “Replacements” make it clear where their sympathies lie. The striking players in general, and snide quarterback Eddie Martel (Brett Cullen) in particular, are unflatteringly tarred with the same brush: They are “a bunch of bitchy millionaires” (according to team owner Edward O’Neil, played by Jack Warden) who have lost their love and passion for the sport.
On the other hand, the game, not the fame, is still the most important thing for replacement players such as Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), a once-promising college quarterback whose spirit was broken by a devastating Sugar Bowl loss. When veteran coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) is plucked from retirement to assemble and coach a replacement team for the Washington Sentinels, the currently underemployed Falco is at the top of a very short list of potential recruits.
And how does McGinty know who Falco is, and where he might contact him? Well, you see, even though he’s been out of the game for a long time — since the ’80s, someone mentions in passing –McGinty has continued to keep track of promising or overlooked players throughout the U.S., just in case he might ever have to field a football team with less than a week’s notice. Hey, look, this is the sort of the thing you simply have to accept in this kind of movie.
You also have to accept that the other pick-up players on the ersatz Sentinels lineup will be a sitcom-flavored, demographics-conscious mix of aggressively colorful oddballs, eccentrics and hair-trigger brutes. Jon Favreau (“Swingers”) feasts on the scenery, and even munches on a few co-stars, as a psychotic SWAT cop turned linebacker, while Rhys Ifans (the scene-stealing roommate in “Notting Hill”) adds the right touch of bantamweight swagger as a chain-smoking Welsh footballer who emerges as a world-class kicker.
Other teammates include Michael Jace as a glowering convict on temporary leave from state prison; Michael “Bear” Taliferro and Faizon Love as large-and-in-charge bodyguards who move from the music industry to the playing field; Orlando Jones as a blazingly fast sprinter who’s all thumbs when it comes to actually catching the ball; Troy Winbush as a born-again Christian who’s willing to smite the wicked on any given Sunday; David Denman as a deaf tight end who knows all the right moves when someone signs the play for him; and Ace Yonamine as a sumo wrestler with an unfortunate propensity for eating too much before big games.
On the sidelines, chief cheerleader Annabelle Farrell (Brooke Langton) tries to assemble a new squad of limber lovelies — evidently, the regular cheerleaders went out on strike, too — and winds up settling for a crew of hot-to-trot lap dancers. Naturally, Annabelle insists that she doesn’t mix business with pleasure, and initially refuses to date Shane. Just as naturally, her resistance melts long before the inevitable scene in which she gives the quarterback an extra word of encouragement before the most important game of his life.
“The Replacements” is not a pic that requires an audience to remain intensely attentive to each warp and woof of its plot. Indeed, everything is so predictable, and each character is so stereotypical, that you can make frequent visits to the snack bar without missing anything that qualifies as a shocking revelation or an unexpected plot twist.
But if you stick around for every minute of the movie, you’ll likely gain additional respect for Hackman’s ability to infuse a paper-thin role with gravitas and authority. You’ll also better appreciate Reeves’ engagingly down-to-earth performance as a regular guy who’s both thrilled and terrified to be given an extraordinary break. Langton (like Favreau, a “Swingers” veteran) effortlessly conveys an appealing naturalness that should mark her for bigger and better things. Among the Sentinels, Ifans and Jones acquit themselves as the most valuable supporting players.
Although nearly two hours long, “The Replacements” takes a brisk trot over familiar territory, and never seems padded or unduly protracted. Director Howard Deutch (“Pretty in Pink”) actually may have erred on the side of brevity — a few implied subplots, including Annabelle’s possible prior relationship with quarterback Eddie Martel, appear to have been radically downsized in the editing room. Deutch manages to make even the hoariest of cliches acceptable, if not entirely credible, by moving full speed ahead, preventing the audience from pausing for too many second thoughts.
Second unit director Allan Graf strikes the right balance of broad humor and virile ferocity while staging the football sequences. Pop tunes have been chosen with unusual care and understated wit for the soundtrack — note the clever use of “Every Move You Make” and “Heroes.” Other tech credits are solid.
One minor cavil: The depiction of strikers as spoiled greedheads and replacement players as blue-collar heroes should please many audiences, and likely will generate lively discussions on sports-talk radio shows that will provide invaluable free publicity for the pic. And Hackman is undeniably affecting when he stirs emotions by telling his passed-over players, “You’ve been given what no athlete ever gets — a second chance.” But don’t be surprised if some critics — and maybe a few pro football stars — note the irony of a Hollywood movie paying tribute to strike-breaking scabs at a time when actors are striking against commercial producers, and strongly considering a work stoppage next year aimed at film and TV moguls. Obviously, your perception of who’s a hero and who’s a rat depends on what side of the picket line you’re on.