Lovable, housebroken underdogs, working together to score the crucial basket/touchdown/home run/goal against impossible odds: It’s one of the winningest plots in Hollywood. But, fashioning team spirit out of strikebreaking, The Replacements has got to be the first studio movie (made by well-paid union members, some of them millionaires) about a bunch of guys who snake jobs usually held by highly skilled, highly paid union members.

This is a feel-good movie about scabs.

That our current flush political and economic climate favors such an antilabor story line so uncontroversially is the big news in this bottom-of-the-bin entertainment from Hollywood’s summer freezer of perishables. (Apparently, union busting in sports is okay because fans and owners, not to mention SAG cast and IATSE crew, are unsympathetic to the plight of striking sports millionaires.) The only other comparable headline is that Keanu Reeves plays a former footballer.

With a great flourish of movie history he’s called Shane Falco, and he 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. The movie, written by Vince McKewin and directed by Howard Deutch with little of the fizz he brought to Pretty in Pink, is inspired by the NFL players’ strike of 1987. The incisive, close-up photography by The Sixth Sense‘s Tak Fujimoto outclasses the story by yards.

I’m charmed that Reeves, with his alt-rocker physique and Zen-adept’s impassive face, chose to follow up his cult-hit success as someone who’s all brain in The Matrix by clamping a helmet over his soft, floppy, Pantene-shiny hair and rushing the field as someone who’s supposed to be all body. The casting is weird and counterintuitive, bordering on preposterous, but I don’t mind; it may suggest a perception glitch on the star’s part to think this is a role he’s in fact suited for, but I prefer to think of him as…unfazed. 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 cliched 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 alumnus, 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. C-

The Replacements
  • Movie
  • 114 minutes