A Winning Team
'The Replacements' Scores Despite Mangled Tale of Redskins
by Stephen Hunter
It is either coincidental or ironic--I always get those two confused--that exactly as the diplomacy between the professional football franchises in Washington and Baltimore has broken down, along comes "The Replacements," a movie shot almost entirely in Baltimore that celebrates a professional football team from Washington.
The results: As Washington, Baltimore turns in a very poor performance. If you know both cities even a little, this grows very irritating.
As a documentary account of the fabled replacement team that in 1987 went 3-0, getting the Redskins into the playoffs, from where the real players then went on to win a Super Bowl, the movie is an utter failure.
Finally, as a nearly two-hour time-killer, it's pretty damned enjoyable.
Of these various successes and failures, I react most bitterly as a pure Redskins fan, angry that a fabled team hasn't been properly honored: That 1987 season stands as evidence of just how smart was the Joe Gibbs-Bobby Beathard combine in understanding and adapting to a changing professional situation. They knew a strike was coming, put together an in-depth intelligence report on available replacement talent and assembled a superb team.
Most Skins fans remember those guys with respect and affection, but this story does absolutely nothing with them. Instead, the Redskins have become a fictionalized absurdity called the Washington Sentinels, and Gibbs and Beathard have been mashed into a single mythical character, Jimmy McGinty, played by Gene Hackman at his most coachily avuncular. He's not even the hard-edged winner he was in "Hoosiers," but instead a platitudinizing Walter Cronkite who inspires such love with his pious homilies that it seems possible he will be worshiped as a major religious figure some centuries hence.
He puts together--instantly, unbelievably--a team of colorful losers with something to prove, on the theory that the confluence of impulses toward redemption will produce an outcome that transcends the lack of talent on the field.
On top of that, other than being actually inside the Ravens' locker room at PSINet Stadium and then on its field in front of a few thousand cheering, digitally multiplied fans (Er, what? Those were real fans, not digital ones. - Ani), the movie has almost no real sense of football culture at any level between Pop Warner and the Super Bowl. A line of dialogue indicates that it believes a pro football team comprises 22 players--11 for offense, 11 for defense. Like, how many more would you need?
Then why is it such a toot? Well, partly it's an issue of performance. Nearly everyone in it is fresh and funny. The prime scene-stealer is Orlando Jones as a Danny Buggs-type receiver: great speed, no hands. He also has the eyes that a guy named Buggs should have had, even if Danny didn't--big, bulgy fried eggs that pop out at moments of intensity to devastating comic effect. Willie Best used the same eye-popping thing 50 years ago when he saw "ha'nts" and instructed his feets not to fail him, but no one is likely to call the Jones shtick racist, because it's placed in a context of African American equality--that is, the National Football League. So it's funny, not dispiriting.
As a pro football quarterback, Keanu Reeves will never make you forget Sonny J. or Billy K., but you'd much rather hang out with him than with that narcissistic monster Joe T. He plays Shane Falco, an Ohio State flinger who never came back from a big-time bowl loss. He's cleaning barnacles off sailboats that happen to be anchored at my apartment building on the Inner Harbor when he gets this last big chance. At the stadium--supposedly RFK--he meets Annabelle (Brooke Langston, a fresh-faced refugee from TV), the head cheerleader, who is recruiting lap dancers from the Club Pussycat as cheerleaders (a funny bit). Their low-key courtship is an interesting if inevitable subplot to the larger story of team bonding and striving. A witty stroke allows Pat Summerall and John Madden, in persistently amusing cameos, to call the moves as Reeves moves in for the score in Langston's bar, which the movie imputes to Georgetown, when it is so Fells Point.
But what really works in this film is its montage, as opposed to its mise en scene.
Hello. What can that possibly mean? And if you already know, what can those two big grown-uppy New York film-school-type terms be doing in a review of a low-end football/locker-room-goose movie? Shouldn't I be wearing a black turtleneck to even ask permission from Andrew Sarris to type them?
Mise en scene: what's in the frame. Montage: the relationship of the frames to each other. In this film, the former is ordinary, the latter extraordinary. The director, an undistinguished old pro named Howard Deutch, and his editors, Bud Smith and Seth Flaum, build extraordinary tension into the film's game sequences by playing the rhythms brilliantly. At some deep reptile level we respond, as the camera seems to be a player on the field (the game choreography is superb, and Reeves is enough of an athlete to look professional when he moves and throws). Deutch lets it wander from sideline to crowd to huddle to cheerleaders (whose horny pumping and grinding amplifies the sense of rhythm) so persuasively that you come to believe.
In its way, and quite unexpectedly, "The Replacements" is very exciting.
The Replacements (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for raunchy humor.