Keanu Reeves has finally begun to realize what kinds of roles he's right for: grunt cop in "Speed," computer hacker dude in "The Matrix," and now, a rise-to-the-occasion substitute football hero in "The Replacements."
He's perfect for the quarterback role in this entirely predictable but utterly entertaining gridiron comedy about a mixed bag of working class joes and forgotten college football stars rounded up to play again by an NFL team when their spoiled millionaire players go on strike.
Washed-up collegiate rocket-arm Shane Falco (Reeves) is living on a beat-up houseboat and makes a living scraping barnacles off the bottom of yachts when coach Jimmy McGinty (an ideally-cast Gene Hackman) comes calling, hoping Falco will don shoulder pads and a helmet once again and lead the fictional Washington Sentinels through the last four games of their unfinished season.
Other substitute recruits include a butter-fingered speed demon (Orlando Jones) tapped as a tight end, gigantic sibling bodyguards (Michael "Bear" Taliferro and Faizon Love) for the offensive line, a growling defensive lineman (Michael Jace) secretly on loan from a Maryland prison, a chain-smoking lush of a Welsh soccer player (Rhys Ifans) as a field goal kicker, a sumo wrestler (Ace Yonamine) center, and -- in a scene-stealing, departure performance -- Jon Favreau ("Swingers") as a muscle-headed, mad-dog SWAT team loose cannon, drafted to pummel anyone with the football in his hands.
Suspension of disbelief is essential to the proper enjoyment of "The Replacements" since director Howard Deutch ("Pretty In Pink," "Grumpier Old Men") expects you to buy into several absurd notions such as scab games selling out a stadium and $50-a-week cheerleaders striking in sympathy, allowing for the very amusing but highly unlikely recruitment of sexy strippers as pole-dancing replacement pom-pom girls.
But despite its flaws (and there are many), I was grinning like an idiot all throughout "The Replacements." Sure, it's duct-taped together from clever variations on inevitable scenes (Do the underdogs win the big game? What do you think?) and tired clichés (coach chewing out QB over calling an audible).
But Deutch gives such scenes a fresh and funny spin, and at least he has the good taste to take several pages from the play book of sports flick sage Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham," "Tin Cup") -- including the Empty Stadium Moment of Clarity, the Life Truths Through Sports Metaphors and Falco's sparky romance with the sexy, sassy and sports-savvy female lead, Brooke Langton ("Melrose Place," USA Network's "The Net").
Langton plays the team's buoyant, alluring and sharp cheerleading captain who owns a sports bar, watches ESPN, can spontaneously spout team stats and gives sound game day advice -- all without losing her flirty femininity or covering up her cleavage.
Plus she has zesty, delectable romantic chemistry with Reeves, giving the picture Shelton-style chick appeal. One of the movie's funniest moments is a John Madden-Pat Summerall play-by-play of Reeves moving in on her for their first kiss. (Madden also pokes fun at himself in a scene where he goes bananas drawing his famous arrows on the screen during a replay.)
On the field, Deutch gets good, hard laughs from sight gags like Ifans (the egregious roommate from "Notting Hill") puffing on a cigarette during a field goal attempt, an end zone dance inspired by the sumo wrestler, and the sexpot cheerleaders distracting visiting teams by spanking and grinding against each other. He maintains fourth-quarter energy with a catchy beat mix of early '90s club tunes (EMF, C & C Music Factory) and hip-hop (Young MC, Marky Mark).
Off the field, the script has to support the film and it falters, often depending on formulaic resolutions to contrived conflicts. But even unoriginal scenes that should logically be annoyingly lame -- a bar fight between the replacements and the striking star players, a sing-a-long to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" -- prove refreshingly whimsical in Deutch's hands.
The finale of "The Replacements" feels completely slapped together, with several subplots left dangling conspicuously and an obviously tacked-on, ridiculously philosophical voice-over by Hackman leading into the closing credits. But with its appealing performances and atmosphere of pure fun, almost everything is forgivable in this winning football farce.
Run time: 118 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th August 2000
Box Office USA: $44.0M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros.
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 40%
Fresh: 43 Rotten: 64
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Howard Deutch
Starring: Keanu Reeves as Shane Falco, Gene Hackman as Jimmy McGinty, Brooke Langton as Annabelle Farrell, Orlando Jones as Clifford Franklin, Faizon Love as Jamal Jackson, Jon Favreau as Daniel Bateman, Rhys Ifans as Nigel 'The Leg' Gruff