Scabbed Over

The Replacements can't even score with Gene Hackman on the team

There's no explicable reason for the existence of The Replacements, which is to the football-film genre what Major League was to the baseball movie: sports rendered as sitcom (or Police Academy sequel). The Replacements, which takes as its cue the 1987 National Football League players' strike, is stocked with every cliché and every stereotype imaginable and a few that are almost unthinkable (say, a deaf pro football player). You will watch this movie and find it so familiar, you'll think you wrote it. It possesses neither the crazed, end-of-the-world mania of Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday nor the sneering, smirky cynicism of North Dallas Forty nor the mundane realism of Paper Lion. It just lies on the field, waiting to be carted off, taken out back, and put out of its misery.At least it's no Necessary Roughness, but it so easily could have been: Replace Gene Hackman (as Jimmy McGinty, the weary coach given one final shot at redemption) with William Devane, Keanu Reeves (Shane Falco, the college QB who hung it up after a 45-point defeat in the 1996 Sugar Bowl) with Richard Grieco, Jack Warden (the owner of the fake-named Washington Sentinels) with, hell, Jack Warden, and The Replacements would have been released to Blockbuster or American Airlines for overseas flights. It's so bad, you might have rented The Replacements, taken it home, and still walked out on it around the time it introduces the Sumo-wrestling offensive lineman and the deaf tight end ("At least he'll never be called offside on an audible") and a crazed, fat Jon Favreau as replacement players. Or when strippers suit up as cheerleaders and begin spanking each other. Or when Shane emerges from the locker room during halftime of The Big Game, the goat celebrated as conquering hero as he plants a kiss on the head cheerleader (played by Melrose Place's Brooke Langton).

Director Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink) and screenwriter Vince McKewin think theirs is a high-minded effort, a statement on the culture of greed that threatens to demolish pro sports; The Replacements is the hack's Any Given Sunday, which is no better but is far more captivating since it was, after all, made by a half-brilliant madman. Like Stone, Deutch and McKewin present their pros as ignorant, violent thugs who need their millions to pay their car insurance and alimony. But their point is muted by the movie's desire to be nothing but laugh-riot fairy tale; its setting, in a world where John Madden and Pat Summerall work for TBS and the NFL doesn't exist at all, only keeps us at a distance. Who cares about a "reality" we don't even recognize?

The most frustrating thing about this movie is that it actually tries to overcome its banalities; it almost cons you into rooting for it -- especially when Hackman is on screen, a king slumming it amongst the peasants. That its trailer makes The Replacements looks like BASEketball only works to its advantage. When Warden and Hackman share the screen -- two old pros effortlessly, quietly, modestly doing their best to stay above material so clearly beneath them -- you are, for a second, charmed by the unexpected subtlety of such moments. Set your sights low enough, and this inoffensive little nothing starts looking good come last call. On occasion, when Orlando Jones (best known as the "Make 7 Up Yours" guy) or Rhys Ifans (Hugh Grant's roommate in Notting Hill) are around, it can even amuse you -- if only to death. There's nothing more dangerous than tripe that strives for sincerity, because it suckers us in, lowers our guard, and allows us to be trounced into submission by mediocrity. That is, after all, how Keanu Reeves got to be a star in the first place.

Hackman is in Hoosiers mode once more, trolling the sidelines with a rolled-up game plan in his left hand, beating it against his right palm like a drummer keeping time. But sporting a straw fedora and spouting rah-rah platitudes, he looks out of place and sounds out of time: Tom Landry coaching high-school football. If this movie does indeed possess a beating heart -- the thing that separates winners from losers, as Hackman's McGinty keeps insisting, as though he invented the cliché on the spot -- it resides in Hackman's chest. The 70-year-old veteran of 80 films possesses that rare ability to squeeze dog dung and turn it into a diamond; he transcends even his worst movies, and The Replacements is indeed one of them, because he never for a second acts as though they're beneath him, something to be scraped off the bottom of his shoe. He works, even when nothing else around him does.

McGinty, even more than the second-hand team he's managed to recruit at the last minute, is in desperate need of a second chance: The coach has already been run out of Washington once, suffered through "the Dallas mess" (he butted heads with an $8 million quarterback, a rare moment of truth), and is totally out of options. Either he takes this crappy job, or he will have nothing. So perhaps McGinty can be forgiven his insipidities: The coach, a vestige, is the game's last True Believer -- the feel-good Lombardi.

"You know what separates the winners from the losers?" McGinty asks Falco, making his recruiting speech to the kid who quit the game in humiliation. "The score?" responds Falco, the heathen. But McGinty doesn't bite; he's too faithful to be baited by the cynicism of a never-was. "No, getting back on the horse after getting kicked in the teeth." Anyone else delivers that line, and it's hollow and laughable; Hackman, speaking in a whispered growl, renders it as Absolute Truth. Too bad the Absolute Truth about The Replacements is that it's absolutely awful, and even Gene Hackman can't carry it across the goal line.

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