If you follow football, you know that the big difference between games played by professionals and those undertaken by amateurs (college and high-school students, mostly) is all in the emotion. Autumn after autumn, Fridays and Saturdays have the heart that Sundays don't.
Injecting that heart into the NFL is an underlying theme of "The Replacements," an uneven sports comedy about a group of has-been jocks who cross picket lines to fill in for the fictional Washington Sentinels during a professional players' strike.
Vince McKewin's script emphasizes the team's ragtag aspect, drawing them from bars, factories and even prisons. But they all share one common trait: They're utterly unlike the spoiled, overpaid prima donnas who went on strike.
Leading the squad is Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), a quarterback destined to be remembered for a disastrous Sugar Bowl loss instead of his strong arm and tight spiral passes. Falco is the only character whose relationships are developed in this lightweight production. When he isn't interacting with coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman), a legendary figure who believes that Falco's college debacle cheated him of a pro career, Falco romances cheerleader Annabelle Farrell (Brooke Langton), who's torn between Falco and Daniel Bateman (Jon Favreau), a cop recruited to play linebacker for the team.
Despite the best efforts of McKewin and director Howard Deutch ("Pretty in Pink," "Grumpier Old Men"), there's not much verisimilitude on the screen. The gridiron scenes leading up to the inevitable Big Game bear only a passing resemblance to what's available every weekend on the tube.
Believability goes out the window when Deutch turns his camera on the impossibly rude antics of the striking and strike-breaking athletes. A bar brawl between both groups is especially unlikely. In this day of NFL stars Ray Lewis' and Rae Carruth's bouts with the law, a team that actually fought off the field would lead the league in lawsuits.
The movie works better when it concerns itself with romantic dalliances or the disparity between the pro players' fans-be-damned behavior and the hungry abandon of the replacements. Though we don't really believe that Falco is a leader (Reeves' role is so underwritten that his passes speak louder than his words), his team's rock-'em-sock-'em attitude arouses us as fans.
Hackman waltzes through his role as McGinty; he's played so many rule-barking authority figures in his time that he can now mail it in. He gives the part some oomph, but McKewin's script doesn't allow him much more than cardboard depth. Reeves looks athletic enough to play quarterback, but he's not asked to do much, either. Does his habitual distraction denote emotional gravitas or his usual stoner vacancy?
Langton (who co-starred with Favreau in "Swingers") proves a worthy screen presence. As the leader of an ersatz cheerleading squad stocked with strippers, she aids considerably in serving up grown-up laughs. In his portrayal of Bateman, Favreau is almost unrecognizable as the actor who made "Swingers" a must-see in 1997. Close watchers will delight in a featured role for Rhys Ifans, previously seen as the layabout artist in "Notting Hill." Ifans plays Nigel "The Leg" Gruff, the replacement team's Welsh place kicker, with offhand casualness.
"The Replacements" is hardly a landmark in the annals of pigskin cinema. But for sports fans seeking relief from a lackluster summer of baseball, even this sloppy exercise can evoke a needed chuckle or two.
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