Movie review of The Replacements

Friday, August 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The Replacements plays strictly by the rules. The comedy has no real surprises, but the audience has fun.

Even Keanu Reeves has fun.

After his Sphinxlike performance in The Matrix, Mr. Reeves smiles and laughs in The Replacements - maybe even too much. He's the most clean-cut football hero since Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait. But The Replacements divides its characters into convenient good guys vs. bad guys, and Mr. Reeves plays the best of the good guys.

He even has the ultimate good-guy name of Shane Falco. (Would any screenwriter dare dub a villain "Shane"?) He's a sensitive former quarterback, considered washed up after a Sugar Bowl fall-from-grace several years earlier. All the good guys in The Replacements are wannabes or has-beens. The bad guys are all pampered, overpaid pro athletes, now on strike.

Gene Hackman plays retired coach Jimmy McGinty. (Virtually all the characters have names that strive rather too picturesquely for "coolness.") When the Washington Sentinels go on strike, legendary Coach McGinty is beckoned from retirement to recruit a replacement team. He's been keeping notes on promising players and has a full file on the forlorn Shane. Other recruits come from the Maryland penitentiary and the ranks of sumo wrestlers.

Everyone must get into shape quickly for the climactic game with Dallas.

The screenplay has some punchy dialogue and punchier sight gags. But in the final chapters, The Replacements makes the near-fatal mistake of taking itself too seriously. The audience has already realized that for this group of misfits, being a replacement player represents a last grasp for self-respect. Mr. Hackman's final rah-rah speeches and voice-over narration spell everything out in the corniest possible manner. Mr. Hackman is a fine actor with a strong, convincing voice. But corn is still corn, and the movie suddenly engulfs the audience in it.

Until then, director Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful) directs with the briskness that eluded him in The Odd Couple II. The ensemble cast tries amiably to steal scenes without being pathetic about it. Jon Favreau has fun as an L.A. cop who took Dirty Harry too seriously. David Denman has a choice moment as a deaf player who gleefully comprehends some very specific sign language.

RhysI fans, who scored points last year as Hugh Grant's comically unkempt Notting Hill flatmate, doesn't have a surefire scene this time, but he makes his presence felt. This underdog-friendly flick is filled with stereotypes, including the kind-hearted barkeep who's in charge of the cheerleading squad. Brooke Langton invests her with warm credibility.

As for Mr. Reeves, he also boasts a warm underbelly of tenderness, almost enough to make his too-good-to-be-true hero credible. But in this persistently good-natured flick, too much credibility would only get in the way of the game.