Written by Vince McKewin and directed by Howard Deutch with little of the fizz he brought to ”Pretty in Pink,” The Replacements is inspired by the NFL players’ strike of 1987. And the incisive, close up photography by ”The Sixth Sense”’s Tak Fujimoto outclasses the story by yards.
Keanu Reeves portrays a former footballer who, with a great flourish of movie history, is called Shane Falco. Shane scrapes a living scraping barnacles off boats when he’s recruited as quarterback for the ”crew of outsiders” (as the publicity material calls them) assembled by coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) to finish out the season for the fictional Washington Sentinels.
As played by Reeves, Falco may be the game’s most passive offensive player, but he’s cute in his big shoulder pads and little butt hugging pants. When the quarterback smiles at the team’s head cheerleader (”Swingers”’ Brooke Langton), she’s a goner, another girl reeled in by sexual inertia rather than athletic prowess. And when Reeves is paired in scenes with Hackman, the younger actor looks particularly delicate as Hackman bares his choppers, barking out clichéd messages of tough love about ”the man you are and the man you ought to be.”
But then, Reeves looks breakable on the field and off — and never more so than when consorting with his fellow ”working class” teammates, a monochromatic study in diversity. Jon Favreau, another distinguished ”Swingers” alum, broadly plays an L.A. cop who lunges, snarls, and tackles like a human pit bull; ”Mad TV”’s Orlando Jones fast talks as an incompetent street punk with a talent for sprinting; Rhys Ifans, Hugh Grant’s wacky Welsh roommate in ”Notting Hill,” plays a chain smoking kicker imported from the unruly English soccer fields — a noodle of a lad next to whom Reeves looks positively strapping.
There’s also a Japanese sumo wrestler (Ace Yonamine) and a deaf athlete (David Denman) whose first shot at glory ironically rewards deafness in the face of picket line chanting — replacement workers all, just doing their jobs while the uniformly obnoxious striking players picket at best, and overturn Falco’s unprepossessing pickup truck at their violent worst. (In retaliation, one of the ”outsiders” blasts the windows of a striker’s showily expensive Porsche.) The cues about privilege and resentment, money and class, are loud but vague: Are replacement workers the only ones who play for love of the game? Will the meek inherit the playing fields? ”Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever,” Falco tells his teammates like a little Buddha.
At least one ungarbled moment of communication emerges in this labor dispute. After a melee, the pickup team lands briefly in jail, each man in private despair. Then one guy starts singing Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem ”I Will Survive,” probably because he thinks that’s the only song allowed in movies these days. Pretty soon he’s dancing, a smooth line dance sashay, and other men join, and then the Welsh nutter learns the moves, and finally even Keanu Reeves feels the beat, and he awkwardly twirls and slides.
It’s a hackneyed scene, but one of the few in ”The Replacements” that replaces convoluted intentions with silly entertainment. Had the picketing football players been invited to join the hoedown, the strike might have ended on the spot.