Tossed on the August dog-days movie heap like last season’s frayed uniform, The Replacements is an amiable, lackadaisical mouth-breather, lame even by triumph-of-the-underdog sports-comedy standards. Close cousins include the greed-and-gridiron half-satire North Dallas Forty, not to mention the Scott Bakula paragon Necessary Roughness (though another ancestral line might be the David-and-Goliath stick-action giggler: Slap Shot; The Mighty Ducks; Mystery, Alaska; the 1980 Olympic ice-hockey finals; etc.).
After the Washington Sentinels go out on strike, aging coach Gene Hackman comes on board to assemble a multiculti patchwork quilt of ne’er-do-well shadow talents: a lightning-fast convenience-store employee who can’t catch (Orlando Jones); a sumo wrestler (Ace Yonamine, shot frequently from low angles, much like Richard on Survivor); a drunk Welsh soccer player (Rhys Ifans) who can kick the length of a field; a borderline-psychotic cop (Jon Favreau, doing his best Vin Diesel impression). Hackman’s most coveted recruit, a former college football star named Shane Falco, harbors the most ambivalence about returning to the game, but this only adds to his noble luster. The second former Ohio State quarterback in Keanu Reeves’s oeuvre, Falco is somewhat of an inversion of Point Break‘s Johnny Utah, whose career-ending busted shoulder only led him to the illustrious path of law enforcement and transcendentalist surfing, while Falco’s humiliating 45-point loss in the Sugar Bowl dumped him in a marina where he scrapes the gunk off yuppie boats and sleeps alone. But Falco may set off typecasting alarms: His principled reluctance, his (career) resurrection, his selfless leadership on and off the field (a Shane-induced pub fight finally brings the bickering ragtags together), his martyrdoms in the line of duty (more sacks in one game, it would seem, than Archie Manning incurred in his whole career)—it all recalls Reeves’s Jesus figure in The Matrix. Falco’s Costas-like grace in spinning a sports aphorism (“That’s some deep shit Shane,” a teammate testifies) only enhances his aura as the Chosen One.
Our Keanu ambles through Howard Deutch’s slow-paced, thick-tongued production with his usual dazed beatific grace, and both he and Hackman seem embarrassed, which gives their scenes together a special poignancy. Eventually, girls are gotten and face is saved, but The Replacements offers only two new wrinkles in the annals of sports culture. One is a flat rejection of cheerleaders as mere superfluous eye candy; these tongue-lolling pom-pom ladies, who dress like the former Ginger Spice, prove a valuable source of distraction to the Sentinels’ opponents. The other concerns the ongoing relationship between players, spectators, and affirmational gay disco anthems. Much as Yankees fans bump and grind each home game to “Y.M.C.A.,” these Replacements, during a long night in prison after the aforementioned bar scrape, do a choreographed ass-shaking to “I Will Survive.” Which is terrific, but aren’t these the guys who did “Bastards of Young”?