"The Replacements" is your typical crowd-pleasing underdogs-win-the-day sports movie. For anyone who has ever seen "The Bad News Bears", "The Mighty Ducks", "Major League", or "Hoosiers", little of what happens on-screen should be a surprise. Director Howard Deutch ("Pretty in Pink") and scribe Vince McKewin ("Fly Away Home") have the formula down cold, from the formation of the team from a group of inept misfits to the rousing finale scene where the hero wins the game and gets the girl. And though "The Replacements" is derivative in every sense of the word, fans of either the sport or the genre will probably feel right at home, especially with its easy blend of heart and humor.
The set-up is simple. It is the middle of the football season, four games down to the play-offs, and the players have gone on strike for more money. As the team owners did back in the 1987 NFL strike, the owner of the Washington Sentinels (Jack Warden of "Bulworth") decides to hire replacement players (or 'scabs', as the striking players affectionately call them), and charges his former coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman of "Enemy of the State") with getting them up to speed to take the Sentinels to the play-offs. McGinty agrees to find replacement players, but only if he gets to call the shots with minimal management interference.
McGinty's star pick is Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves, in his first role since last year's "The Matrix"), a former quarterback with a strong arm whose football career was cut short by a disastrous fumble during the 1996 Sugar Bowl-- he now spends his days scraping barnacles off of other people's yachts. Also along for the ride are a former sprinter (Orlando Jones of "Magnolia") who can run fast but can't catch, a chain-smoking Welsh soccer player (Rhys Ifans of "Notting Hill") with a great kicking leg, a hefty sumo-wrestler (Ace Yonamine), two gangsta rappers (Faizon Love of "The Players Club" and Michael Taliferro of "Life"), and a cop with some serious anger-management issues (David Denman).
Of course, the first game of the reconstituted Washington Sentinels ends in disaster, as infighting between team members earns the opposition a few touchdowns, as well as some disparaging comments from sportscasters John Madden and Pat Summerall (playing themselves). But, like all films of the genre, the men begin to bond, and begin acting like a real 'team' (in the case of "The Replacements", they do a choreographed dance to "I Will Survive", which seems almost obligatory nowadays). And what's a sports movie without some romance thrown in? In this case, Shane catches the eye of Annabelle (Brooke Langton of "Swingers"), the team's head cheerleader, who is having some unique challenges of her own in putting together a cheerleading squad culled from the staff of local gentlemen's clubs.
Yes, it's nothing that you haven't seen before. The jokes come fast and funny in this breezy little film, including a couple of standout sequences where the cheerleaders actually steal the show. Thankfully, the script does have some semi-serious intentions that become more apparent in the third act, so the film doesn't remain an endless clothesline of gags built around the strange habits of crazy characters and their middling attempts to bond (such as in the "Police Academy" movies).
However, "The Replacements" could have been a stronger film had it been populated with developed characters, instead of the usual archetypes. As an example, though Hackman looks and sounds right for the part of the coach, there is little background given on who he is, what he has at stake, or why he should give a damn about his players so much. Another example would be Langton's character, whose only distinguishing characteristics are being photogenic (especially in her cheerleader outfit) and being a lousy driver. I certainly don't expect characters developed to the nth-degree, but we should know enough to actually care about what happens to them.
Narrative issues aside, what I found most interesting about "The Replacements" was how Deutch essentially carbon-copied the cinematography and editing of Oliver Stone's recent football film, "Any Given Sunday". Like Stone's Christmas offering from last year, "The Replacements" is punctuated by numerous scenes of football players slamming into one another in bone-crunching Dolby Surround, interspersed with 'ogle' shots of the cheerleaders strutting their stuff. All of this while familiar and driving dance rhythms blare on in the background. In "Any Given Sunday", Stone used his trademark multimedia approach to juxtapose the heroic ideals and epic scope of football with the brutality and corruption that had become commonplace in the sport, both on and off the field. In "The Replacements", there seems to be little purpose for such an exercise in style, other than to make the film look 'cool'. Unfortunately, as they did in "Any Given Sunday", the blaring music, the body slamming, and the slo-mo montages quickly become monotonous after awhile, and without any purpose to the sensory barrage, it becomes old very quickly.
Rousing, but ultimately vacuous, "The Replacements" will probably appeal to football fans or sports movie junkies in search of their next fix. With a story about has-beens and everyday guys getting a chance to play in the big leagues, "The Replacements" aims for the lowest-hanging fruit, and more-or-less succeeds.