Screenplay : Vince McKewin (Fly Away Home)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Keanu Reeves (Shane Falco), Gene Hackman (Jimmy McGinty), Jack Warden (O'Neil), Brooke Langton (Annabelle), Jon Favreau (Bateman), Rhys Ifans (Gruff), Orlando Jones (Franklin), Brett Cullen (Martel), Gailard Sartain (Pilachowski), David Denman (Murphy)
It is clear that screenwriter Vince McKewin ("Fly Away Home") has been watching his sports movies. His script for "The Replacements" is a combination of every cinematic sports cliché, from genre classic like "Knute Rockne, All American" (1940), to later comedies like "Major League" (1988) and "Necessary Roughness" (1990). There isn't a single bone of originality in its entire 110-minute running time, yet it just almost works out of sheer force of will. Almost.
The screenplay imagines what would happen if professional football players went on strike over salary disputes and the owners brought in replacement players to finish out the season (pro players did go strike for several weeks during the 1982-83 season, but the season was simply shortened to make up for it). The story centers on the fictional Washington Sentinels, whose owner brings in a squad of misfits, has-beens, and never-would-have-beens to win three of their last four games so they can go to the playoffs.
This new "scab team" consists of a motley collection of unlikely heroes, from a sumo wrestler turned offensive guard, to a deaf tight end, to a couple of hip hop bodyguards who pack pistols and wear as much gold jewelry as Mr. T. The team's kicker is a Welsh soccer player with gambling problems (played by Rhys Ifans, who stole every scene in "Notting Hill" playing Hugh Grant's slob of a roommate), and its best defensive player is a psychotic SWAT team officer (played, in an surprising casting decision, by Jon Favreau, best known for roles as nervous, unsure guys in films like "Swingers" and "Very Bad Things").
Coached by the almost-washed-up Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman), these misfits have to learn to come together as a team in a week's time (not to mention get in shape, learn complex plays, and, for some of them, simply remember how to play football). An unlikely proposition, but seeing as how the entire movie hinges on our accepting it, there's much that can be done if there's any hope for enjoyment.
The team is led by quarterback Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), a one-time Ohio State star who got a reputation of choking at the finish line after his team was destroyed in the Sugar Bowl by 45 points. Now making a living by scraping barnacles off the hulls of pleasure yachts, Falco is brought back into the fold by McGinty, who sees great potential in him.
Big surprise that Falco learns to reach deep inside himself and lead the team, thus putting to shame Martel (Brett Cullen), the obnoxious, Porsche-driving pretty boy of a quarterback he's replacing. Ditto that the team will find itself tested in a big game that will determine whether or not they make it to the playoffs. And, what would the film be without any romance, so the screenplay pairs Falco with a football-knowledgeable head cheerleader named Annabell (Brooke Langton), who, it turns out, happens to be Martel's ex-girlfriend.
The performers all seem game, with Hackman throwing in a few hints of his unforgettable performance as a volatile Indiana high school basketball coach in "Hoosiers" (1985). Keanu Reeves shows a little more life than normal, and his scenes with Brooke Langton actually have some spark. 7-Up pitchman Orlando Jones also has fun as a jive-talking, super-fast wide receiver who can't catch to save his life.
The game scenes in "The Replacements" work well enough, and the simplicity with which director Howard Deutch ("Grumpier Old Men") stages them brings to mind how ridiculously overblown Oliver Stone's visual style was in "Any Given Sunday" (1999). Deutch doesn't offer much that is new, but his game scenes have energy (not to mention lots of music from early '90s relics like EMF and C+C Music Factory). The inclusion of longtime commentators Pat Summerall and John Madden given the scenes a touch of authenticity, although they don't even begin to compete with Bob Uecker's jaw-droppingly hilarious commentaries in "Major League."
The movie is ostensibly a comedy, although most of the jokes are worn out to the point of death. Apparently, the cheerleads are also on strike, so Annabell has to put together a new cheering crew, which consists mostly of strippers who display all kinds of new moves on the sidelines (the scene in which they distract the opposing team with their gyrating is stolen directly from the '80s high-school football flick "Johnny Be Good"). Scenes like the odd dance sequence in a jail cell to Gloria Gayner's "I Will Survive" make it clear that the film is constantly reaching for something--anything--that will lift it above its well-worn parts. Unfortunately, it rarely achieves lift-off.
©2000 James Kendrick