by Dan Webster
The Replacements," Howard Deutch's charming little ode to strikebreakers -- known to some as scabs -- falls under the category of guilty pleasure.
What better description is there for a movie that, in addition to its already questionable politics, revels in every ethnic stereotype imaginable, treats women like blow-up dolls, follows the same-old "Rocky" sports-movie formula and casts Keanu Reeves in its lead role?
Despite all this, or maybe because of it, "The Replacements" is fun. In much the same way that "Space Cowboys" makes light of NASA's self-important space program, "The Replacements" makes fun of the self-important NFL.
Given the various professional sports strikes that have occurred over the past few years, it isn't particularly hard for Deutch or screenwriter Vince McKewin to make the situation at least halfway believable.
In McKewin's screenplay, the NFL's owners and the multimillion-dollar players are at a contract impasse. So when the players decide to walk, owners such as Edward O'Neill (Jack Warden) decide to replace them.
This sets up a situation allowing the average fan to relate to, and then root for, the scabs. For while the owners may be manipulative jerks, the players are little more than spoiled sissies.
All-League quarterback Eddie Martel (Brett Cullen), for example, has a tendency to slide rather than dive for a score. And then he'll whine when he talks about all the bills he has to pay.
"Five million dollars sounds like a lot of money," he tells the media. It's abundantly clear that Martel boasts a sense of proportion that is clearly out of whack with everyday reality.
Enter everyday guys such as Shane Falco (Reeves), who is chosen to succeed Martel as QB of the Washington Sentinels. A college quarterbacking phenom, Falco's professional career never developed after he endured a disastrous Sugar Bowl showing. That one game earned him the nickname "Footsteps," which refers to his tendency to scramble or unload a pass when under pressure.
But he's the very guy that coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) wants because, in addition to a strong arm, Falco has "heart."
He's joined by a virtual international cast of has-beens and/or never-wases. There are the brothers (Faizon Love, Michael Taliaferro), former pros who, when their careers went south, became bouncers joined at the elbow. Jon Favreau ("Swingers") plays a SWAT-team linebacker, while Michael Jace is his counterpart -- a prison inmate on temporary leave.
You've got the hearing-impaired tight end (David Denman), the sumo wrestler offensive tackle (Ace Yonamine), the born-again running back (Troy Winbush), the speedy receiver with hands of stone (Orlando Jones) and the Welsh placekicker (Rhys Ifans of "Notting Hill") who lights up a cigarette just to get into the mood for field goals.
And that doesn't even begin to include the cheerleaders, led by Reeves' love interest (Brooke Langton), whose lap-dancing routines are as X-rated as they are distracting to the other teams.
See what I mean about stereotypes?
Somehow, though, it works. Deutch doesn't actually add anything visually to the mix, other than action scenes that surpass anything Oliver Stone put on the screen in his pretentious NFL study "Any Given Sunday" (no great feat). The director of such films as "Pretty in Pink," "Article 99" and "The Odd Couple II," Deutch is your typical journeyman filmmaker.
Yet he doesn't get in the way, either, which can be an asset in itself. At least Deutch has the good sense to let his cast work, which is all that's needed by someone as talented as Hackman -- an actor who can make reading the phone book sound interesting .
The film that "The Replacements" most resembles is "Major League," Roger S. Ward's 1989 sports comedy about that -- at the time -- most unlikely of events: Cleveland's baseball Indians playing in a pennant race.
In like fashion, Falco and his fellow replacements must win three out of four games to make the playoffs, overcoming off-field machinations of owners and regular players alike.
Can they do it?
Can you hum the theme to "Rocky"?