Aw, All They Want Is a Chance to Play
by Elvis Mitchell
''You're not even a has-been; you're a never-was!'' a striking pro football player cracks about Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), the honorable, stoic fill-in quarterback -- yes, scab -- in ''The Replacements.''
This negligible comedy might as well come with a bouncing ball so members of the audience can recite the dialogue along with the actors. They certainly could do so with Gene Hackman, who plays the honorable, stoic fill-in coach Jimmy McGinty. Mr. Hackman, looking flinty and authoritative in a selection of tweed jackets and hats from the Tom Landry Collection, seems to be repeating lines he used in ''Hoosiers'' and old United Airlines commercials.
''The Replacements'' is so eager to please that it's like a Labrador retriever that slobbers all over you and leaves hair on your favorite sweater. Even the limp, diffident tag line on the poster -- ''Pros on strike. Regular guys get to play!'' -- has an air of desperation. The movie just wants to be loved; is that so wrong? Well, yes, given that ''The Replacements'' is a desperate, broad comedy, full of fist fights, gunplay, projectile vomiting and opposing teams in what looks like the old Oakland Raiders uniforms that made the players look like assassins.
Falco has been making a living cleaning barnacles off boats in the Washington boat basin since he choked at the Sugar Bowl of 1996 -- a year when Ohio State apparently relaxed its age restriction on college players -- and the Buckeyes were slammed in a 40-point loss; he is still coping with the shame.
When the Washington Sentinels go on strike, Falco is recruited by McGinty, who looks at him and intones somberly, ''Nothing counts so much as family. . . .'' Oops, that's one of Mr. Hackman's lines from ''Wyatt Earp.'' He does tell Falco that he has to act like a leader. Mr. Reeves coasts through the picture by keeping his cool, even when he should be ruffled.
''The Longest Yard,'' ''The Dirty Dozen'' and all 30 installments of ''Major League'' are ransacked for ''The Replacements.'' Instead of having a big threatening black man, this movie reinvents the genre by offering several of them: the rapper bodyguard brothers Andre (Michael Taliferro) and Jamal (Faison Love) and Earl Wilkerson (Michael Jace), whose character is as much of a walk-on as he could be, considering that he was released from prison into the custody of a pro team.
There's also the violent Los Angeles cop Bateman (a zealous Jon Favreau) and the Chevy Silverado-size sumo wrestler Jumbo (the large but gentle Ace Yonamine) to crank up the level of comic violence. And it wouldn't be a football picture without a born-again Christian (Troy Winbush). ''
''The Replacements'' also adds a deaf player (David Denman) to the mix. ''He'll never be called offsides on an audible,'' McGinty notes.
Rhys Ifans, who in ''Notting Hill'' was so slight that his chin stubble weighed more than the rest of him, has filled out a bit and plays Nigel Gruff, the immensely talented and garrulous Welsh soccer player used as a place kicker. ''Is he smoking?'' asks John Madden (playing himself in the announcer booth, along with Pat Summerall), noting the cigarette dangling from Nigel's mouth under the helmet.
The movie has no pretensions, but it louses up a great subject. The 1987 N.F.L. Players Union strike, on which it is based, gave fans a chance to see some of the most unusual football ever; it was like watching the cable access version of the World Football League, with a palpable current of players' desire keeping the undertalented on the field. There is probably still a movie to be made about that strike over free agency.
Since Los Angeles is such a union town and there is talk of possible Screen Actors Guild and Writers' Guild strikes in the next year, it's odd to see a movie that essentially glorifies scabs (especially at a time when athletes like Tiger Woods are being attacked for crossing picket lines to do commercials during the actors' strike against ad companies).
During the 1987 strike, the fans kept coming out to watch the games, turning the stadium parking lots into huge tailgate rallies. The play-by-play guys shook their heads and did their jobs. In the movie, Mr. Madden and Mr. Summerall are probably supposed to offer the same kind of comic relief that ''Major League'' got from Bob Uecker -- who's better at using baseball for stand-up than he did as a player? -- but their lack of comment on the politics of the strike seems peculiar, too. The real-life players lost their job action, and the sight of big-ticket players crossing the picket lines opened a wound of bitterness that took years to heal; some say it never did.
''The Replacements'' cheapens all this by treating the striking pros as spoiled princes. Interviewed by a news crew, a player looks into the camera and says, ''You have any idea what insurance on a Ferrari costs?'' And McGinty grumbles to the team's owner (Jack Warden): ''You don't have any players. They all flew off to their private castles.''
The closest the picture gets to the kind of guy who ended up on the field during the strike is the wide receiver Clifford Franklin (Orlando Jones), a viper-fast sprinter who can't hold onto the ball. When Franklin gets to see his pro football player heroes up close, they're flinging eggs at the bus in which he and the other scabs are traveling. He's wide-eyed, terrified and happy.
A lot of the work is done by the foot-stomper old-school stadium rock songs heard at every pro sports event -- Queen's ''We Will Rock You,'' for example. The soundtrack, which sounds as if K-Tel put it together, includes ''Unbelievable'' and ''I Will Survive,'' which is fast emerging as this summer's movie anthem. (If you close your eyes, you could be at ''Coyote Ugly.'') Franklin adopts it as the team's theme and leads his teammates through the Electric Slide when they're behind bars after a fight with the striking players.
''Better lucky than good,'' Falco says at one point. With its feel-good exuberance, it will probably win an audience. After all, an ugly win is still a win.
''The Replacements'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes profanity, alcohol consumption and knockabout football violence.