Picking the Scabs 

Comedy is a capable replacement for coherence in The Replacements.

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There’s so much contrivance and forced dramatic conflict in film these days that it’s sometimes refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t even try.

In The Replacements, a new comedy loosely based on the 1987 NFL players’ strike, director Howard Deutch and screenwriter Vince McKewin dispense with the pretenses and posturing that have come to pass for storytelling skills in this medium.

Instead, they pull out every hoary sports movie chestnut in the drawer, add a good-natured sense of humor and intelligence, and keep things moving briskly throughout. The result is a movie that won’t make you think and won’t make you stand and/or cheer, but which will almost certainly make you laugh.

It’s the story of the Washington Sentinels, who hire veteran coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) to select and coach a team of scabs after the players’ union goes on strike with four games left in the season. He chooses a roster consisting of the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who Struggle at First but Eventually Pull Together To Win the Big Game. Conflicts arise and are beaten down at appropriate points, leaving room for a thoroughly unconvincing romance and not one but two climactic finishes.

The real treats are along the way. A quietly outstanding cast gives a number of unusual performances with idiosyncrasies that belie everything else about the picture. We get Orlando Jones (the guy in those 7Up commercials) as a wide receiver who can’t catch and a Welsh kicker (Rhys Ifans) who only stops smoking long enough to make field goals and grab his crotch. Whether it’s Brooke Langton (the gravel-voiced former Melrose Placer) decidedly out of place as a cheerleader or Jon Favreau as a maniacal SWAT team member turned linebacker, everyone seems to be having a great deal of fun, and it’s infectious.

In addition, the paint-by-numbers screenplay is surprisingly full of off-kilter zingers that don’t hit you until you think about them for a minute (One Guy: “You’ll pay for this!” Other Guy: “No, I won’t!” … well, maybe you’ve got to be there).

It’s not that Deutch doesn’t know how to make a competent, dramatically bolstered film. It’s as if he simply realizes that with a concept this slight, it would be akin to making a soda can out of titanium. Why waste the energy?

As boat-hull-scraper-turned-quarterback Shane Falco, Keanu Reeves is the least convincing or interesting character of the bunch. That’s because he’s out of his element here; usually, he’s the guy in the movie giving a strange performance and throwing a monkey wrench into a tired film. Here, his role requires him to almost be a straight man, and there’s very little that’s straight about Keanu.

There’s also plenty of the benign, grinning misogyny on which pro sports—and football in particular—are built, particularly in the scenes where Langton’s replacement cheerleaders show off the moves of their former profession: dancing at clubs out by the airport. But it’s a credit to Deutch that while such booty-shaking is ridiculously pandering on so many levels, it’s also funny as hell. And why were the real cheerleaders on strike, anyway?

The Replacements is a dumb, formulaic fantasy picture with absolutely no grounding in reality. It reaches saturation levels of predictability, and it makes absolutely no social commentary on the bizarre situation in which it’s set, where millionaire employees are striking against billionaire bosses.

What we get are a bunch of guys genuinely having fun while goofing around. If you haven’t been to the movies lately, you won’t know—but that’s almost cause for celebration.

The Replacements (PG-13) HHH Directed by Howard Deutch. Starring Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman and Brooke Langton.

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About The Author

Greg Beacham

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