The Replacements
review by KJ Doughton, 18 August 2000

The Replacements doesn’t pretend to be anything more than two hours of simple-minded escapism, but it’s still a shame that the movie can’t push its message more passionately. And exactly what is the message of this second-string gridiron comedy, which continues the slapstick, sophomoric tradition of sports humor previously mined in The Waterboy and Major League? Smothered beneath The Replacements’ gaggle of puke jokes and dry-humping cheerleaders is the opinion that the professional sports arena is a stomping ground for overpaid prima donnas who, in the words of coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman), "have no heart."

The corruption of the contemporary NFL has been tackled before by 1979’s North Dallas Forty, where players were viewed as pawns to be chewed up and spit out by an unsympathetic corporate machine far more sinister than any hulking linebacker. More recently, Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday showed how "old school" coaches were being taken over by yuppie team owners willing to falsify medical records to keep crowd-pleasing players on the field. However, The Replacements abandons the darker, more personal angle of those films with a juvenile blend of goofball physical humor that owes more to Police Academy than to Vince Lombardi.

The movie begins in the flurry of an NFL players’ strike, and Washington Sentinels coach McGinty is struggling to recruit scab players and stitch together a team of fill-ins until the strike is resolved. He presents team owner Edward O’Neill (Jack Warden) with photos and profiles of his choices, and they’re a motley crew of highly excitable SWAT team psychos, pistol-packin’, gangsta rappin’ twins, egg-eating sumo wrestlers, and hell-raising Irishmen. In other words, the usual cluster of asshole buddies that have shown up in every "loser-makes-good" raunchfest that’s been green-lighted since Animal House set the standard for this profitable hybrid of film. "If nothing else," says McGinty about this odd assemblage of players, "they should be fun to watch."

Enter prospective quarterback Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), a one-time NFL contender whose career was buried by a brutal loss during the Sugar Bowl. McGinty offers Falco a second chance, but the retired player is reluctant. "It’s quiet here," he says of his current gig on the oceanfront, where he’s making a living "scraping the crap off the bottom of someone else’s toy boats." The veteran coach is persistent, however, eventually wooing Falco onto his team’s new but not necessarily improved players roster. When Falco asks McGinty why he’s the coach’s chosen one, he sounds like Reeve’s reluctant techno-savior Neo from last year’s The Matrix. "I look at you and see two men," replies Hackman, who wrestles gamely with a lame script. "The man you are, and the man you ought to be."

Once he signs on, however, Falco has to contend with the angry rivalry and taunts of original Sentinels players, who pelt a bus of scab recruits with eggs, and overturn the new quarterback’s car when it’s parked in the team’s practice lot. "You’re not even a has-been," whines Falco’s on-strike predecessor Eddie Martel (Brett Cullen) in one of the film’s many uninspired bursts of familiar dialogue. "You’re a never-was!"

Meanwhile, it’s no stretch to predict that Falco’s team of misfits will be so incompetent that when he throws a practice pass, the would-be receiver will collide with a teammate, Jerry Lewis-style, and miss the catch. His notorious past is another mark against the young quarterback. "I lost a ton of money on that Sugar Bowl disaster," complains a teammate.

This unpromising debut with The Sentinels doesn’t bog Falco down so much that he can’t make goo-goo eyes at the cheerleader captain, Annabelle Farrell (Brooke Langton). When Farrell isn’t going weak in the knees over her astro-turf Adonis, she’s forming a ramshackle collection of cheerleaders (presumably, the original cluster of Sentinels pom-pom wavers is also on the picket line). A cruel montage presents the overweight applicants as objects of ridicule, while using the cleavage-heavy recruits as sluttish rump-shakers. "So, I understand that you appeared in Cats," remarks Farrell to one voluptuous sex kitten. "Actually, I appeared at the Pussy Cat," clarifies this former lap-dancer. It’s not surprising that when The Replacements runs out of steam or has no place to go, it focuses on the routines of these lusty lasses in an effort to keep male viewers from getting bored.

And what is it with reckless driving as a metaphor for erotic foreplay? Sharon Stone teased Michael Douglas with this dumb ritual in Basic Instinct, Crash took it to nauseatingly graphic extremes, and the image was rekindled in Mission: Impossible 2. This time around, Farrell gives Falco "a lift" in her careening jeep, which zigs and zags through heavy inner-city traffic while the two lovebirds make small talk. Pretty soon, they’re cozying up in the more rustic confines of her late father’s bar where Annabelle pours drinks, swapping spit to the tune of The Police’s "Every Breath You Take."

As The Replacements runs its familiar course, you can bet that: a.) The Sentinels will get into a groove and begin winning games; b.) Falco will run into a crisis when his rival Martel crosses the picket line and wants to return as quarterback; c.) The one-time pro who blew his knee out after one NFL game is given a second chance to make a touchdown; d.) The receiver with the fumbling fingers will catch a critical pass after his condition is remedied via some strategically-placed adhesive ("I look like I just jacked off an elephant," the player complains, his hands dripping with glue-goo). It all boils down to the Big Pre-Playoff Game, before the strike is called off and the pros are called back to don their jerseys. Will the spoiled priss Martel relinquish his title to good guy Falco? Will Falco’s flame Annabelle stand by her man? Will the scabs beat the regulars into chopped liver during the obligatory bar fight? The Replacements projects these outcomes earlier than John Madden predicting Super Bowl scores during the first NFL game of the season (both Madden and Pat Summerall play themselves, as sportscasters narrating the play-by-play action of each successive game).

Per usual, Reeves struggles through the film like a valley guy trying to impersonate Harrison Ford. It wasn’t so long ago that Reeves projected an honest, believable presence in such films as River’s Edge and Permanent Record. More recently, however, this hot commodity from The Matrix has come across as a guy desperately attempting to act. There’s a strained quality to his delivery that’s made all the more obvious when he’s set alongside Hackman, arguably the best American screen actor of the past thirty years. Coach McGinty is no original, but Hackman is able to enunciate his lines with a surprising level of conviction, even when he’s slogging through the most clichéd locker-room pep talks in movie history.

The Replacements is a prime example of what happens during the fall months, after Hollywood has unleashed its summer moneymakers, but before it’s offered up holiday-season Oscar fare. As leaves cluster on the ground, mediocre film fare clutters cineplexes far and wide. There’s another serious movie out there waiting to be made about the spoils of corporate sports. But The Replacements deserves to be benched for the season.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's interview.

Directed by:
Howard Deutch

Keanu Reeves
Gene Hackman
Brooke Langton
Jack Warden
Brett Cullen

Written by:
Vince McKewin




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