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"THE REPLACEMENTS"
(2000) (Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: During a professional football league strike, a veteran coach tries to get his ragtag group of replacement players ready for the last four games of the season.
PLOT:
Needing to win three of their last four games of the regular season to make the professional football league playoffs, the Washington Sentinels seem to have a good chance, especially considering that their quarterback, Eddie Martel (BRETT CULLEN), is one of the best in the league. Yet, a players' strike suddenly has team owner Edward O'Neil (JACK WARDEN) scrambling for options.

As such, he hires veteran coach Jimmy McGinty (GENE HACKMAN) to round up a team of replacement players to finish out those last four games. Although initially reluctant, McGinty eventually agrees and sets out after his first choice for quarterback, Shane Falco (KEANU REEVES), a one-time college sensation who disappeared after a debacle at the Sugar Bowl several years earlier.

Falco, who makes a living scraping barnacles off others' boats, is also reluctant, but sensing one last shot at the big time, he also agrees. Among his new teammates is Clifford Franklin (ORLANDO JONES), a fast but butterfingered receiver; Daniel Bateman (JON FAVREAU), a near psychotic and extremely intense cop; Nigel Gruff (RHYS IFANS) a chain-smoking Welsh soccer player; and Earl Wilkinson, a.k.a. "Smith" (MICHAEL JACE), who's been serving time in a Maryland prison.

Then there's born-again Christian Walter Cochran (TROY WINBUSH); music industry bodyguards, Jamal (FAIZON LOVE) and Andre Jackson (MICHAEL "BEAR" TALIFERRO); Jumbo Fumiko (ACE YONAMINE), a former sumo wrestler, and Brian Murphy (DAVID DENMAN), a sensational tight end who happens to be deaf.

With little time to prepare and practice, let alone build any sort of team chemistry, the ragtag group of players must overcome their differences, the taunting and threats from the striking pro players, and the distractions posed by head cheerleader, Annabelle Farrell (BROOKE LANGTON), and her squad of stripper-turned cheerleaders, all as they try to win their games and make it to the playoffs.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Loosely following the old line about fact being stranger than fiction, this is the second film of recent to take a real-life, dramatic incident and use it as the basis for a fictional comedy rather than a dramatic look at the real event. Like John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented" that uses the Patty Hearst kidnapping saga as its jumping off point, "The Replacements" uses the 1987 NFL players strike as its catalyst.

Wishing to gain free agency rights, along with higher salaries and increased pension benefits, the National Football League Players Association called for a strike two games into the 1987 season. In response, the NFL and its team owners simply hired substitute players to cross the picket lines and continue playing the schedule. Those players - a hodgepodge of former college talent and generally anyone else who could make the cut - got the chance for NFL glory, but it was short-lived as the strike ended just twenty-four days after it began.

Such a story - or even a fictionalized version of it -- obviously has the makings for an interesting dramatic piece, what with the conflict between the players and the owners, the resentment toward the replacement players who were brought in, and that group's brief attempt at their first and possibly last shots at playing in the NFL.

Instead of taking that dramatic approach, however, director Howard Deutch ("Grumpier Old Men," "Pretty in Pink"), who works from a script by Vince McKewin ("Fly Away Home"), opts to play it all for comedy, something along the lines of "Necessary Roughness" (the 1991 film starring Scott Bakula). While that's not necessarily an inherently bad decision, the filmmakers here have unfortunately also ended up throwing out most semblances of creative thought and decent filmmaking in the process.

Of course, I must offer this caveat. I am and have been a big football fan since I was a kid. Thus, like most fans, I've heartily enjoyed the various football films that have been released over the years, such as "The Longest Yard" (the 1974 Burt Reynolds film), 1979's "North Dallas Forty" (with Nick Nolte and Mac Davis) and most of Oliver Stone's 1999 film "Any Given Sunday," as well as those where the sport was more of a backdrop (such as 1978's "Heaven Can Wait") rather than the main event.

For the most part, it seems that football-based films usually work better as dramas rather than comedies, although there have been a few exceptions to that rule. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. The main reason for that is that the film is simply a predictable retreading of previously covered ground. How many times must we see a story concerning an ethnically and socially diverse ragtag group of misfits and has-beens who learn how to get along so that they can win the big game?

Well, with the release of this film the answer seems to be at least one more time, but the recycled plot and characters, as well as the unimaginative way in which they and the related dialogue are presented (not to mention blatant continuity errors and material that was overlooked - or left on the cutting room floor) is enough to irritate plenty of movie and/or sports fans alike.

In fact, the easy way to tell that a picture is in trouble is to listen to the number of songs playing during certain scenes. Yes, the selling of any given film's soundtrack is now a big business in and upon itself, and such songs are needed to push those sales. And there are obviously certain films - "Footloose," "Grease," "Saturday Night Fever" - where songs are an integral part of the story.

Yet in this picture, the nearly nonstop barrage of both old and newer tunes is clearly used by the filmmakers only as a means to fill dead space, boost weaker moments and manipulate the viewer's response to the film through aural means. While the latter's nearly always done in most films (think of the many scores by composer John Williams), the group sing-along and many musical montages here clearly indicate a lack of imagination and/or substance needed to carry the picture. In fact, I can't think of any recent film - where music isn't a fundamental part of the story -- that's relied more on its soundtrack than this one.

The problems don't end there. Beyond the lackluster plot and stereotypical characters and their related development (or lack thereof), the film contains all sorts of football-related gaffes. While the picture obviously involves a fictitious professional football league - perhaps the NFL didn't like stirring up memories of the strike (or simply read the script beforehand) and thus didn't give permission to use its properties - and doing so gives the filmmakers a bit of artistic freedom, the results will probably come off as unusual and/or unsettling to fans (who, after all, will be the film's primarily targeted audience).

Here, the Washington, D.C. based team is called the Sentinels, rather than the Redskins, and although they supposedly play in D.C., the film is obviously set (and was shot) in Baltimore in the present day, rather than in 1987, and the fictitious season oddly ends on Thanksgiving night.

At one point, a striking player crosses the picket line and replaces Falco, but instead of becoming the second-string QB, he's sent packing. Interestingly enough, the cheerleaders have seemingly also gone on strike (for no apparent reason other than to allow the filmmakers to introduce strippers as their replacements) and for some reason the real NFL commentating team of John Madden and Pat Summerall have apparently jumped ship to call the games only for the Sentinels.

While none of those are particularly unforgivable cinematic sins, such discrepancies and incongruities - not to mention the boring, predictable and otherwise haphazardly staged games -- keep the film out of kilter for most of its duration, and the lack of the NFL branding diminishes the efforts right from the get-go.

As in many other films released this summer, some of the cast members and their performances are better than the material surrounding them and do manage to make the proceedings a bit easier to watch. While many have criticized Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix," "The Devil's Advocate") and his style of acting/performances in the past, I've nearly always enjoyed his work and that pretty much holds true for this film. Although he's burdened by predictable and stereotypical writing, Reeves manages to imbue his character with enough reserved charm that you can't help but like him.

The same holds true for the great Gene Hackman ("Enemy of the State," "Absolute Power") who trades in his basketball coaching duties from "Hoosiers" for those related to the gridiron here. Similarly restrained by stereotypical characterizations, Hackman nonetheless manages to take an unimaginatively mounted role and get a lot more mileage out of it than he probably should have.

Supporting performances are generally okay - beyond the cast members having to fit the diversity requirements called for by the script - with a few of them worth noting. Although Brooke Langton ("Swingers," TV's "Melrose Place") inhabits an instantly forgettable character, she's the only major one featuring the XX chromosomal pairing - save for those cast as the strippers turned cheerleaders - and makes for a decent, if unimaginative pairing with Reeves' character.

Orlando Jones ("Liberty Heights," "Office Space") is probably the most recognizable supporting performer present (due to his recent spate of 7-Up commercials), but Jon Favreau ("Very Bad Things," "Swingers") and Rhys Ifans ("Notting Hill," "Twin Town") steal the show as an intens,e cop-turned replacement player and his laidback, Welsh teammate respectively. The rest of the supporting cast members and their performances pretty much simply blend together.

To be fair, I'm sure that there will probably be plenty of people who enjoy the film and its safe retreading of material they've previously seen in other movies. Despite its problems, it does occasionally manage to rise above its copious inadequacies and get the viewer somewhat involved in the film. Even so, it can't escape feeling like a bumbling replacement of a sports film.

Although it has all of the necessary elements, and even some star talent attached to it, more often than not it comes off like an amateur production rather than one that would be considered a pro. As such, it shouldn't be that surprising that the results aren't particularly worth cheering about. We give "The Replacements" a 3.5 out of 10.




Reviewed July 26, 2000 / Posted August 11, 2000


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