There are lots of reasons to feel good while you’re watching The Replacements. There’s Keanu Reeves running across a football field, his hair flopping slow motionly-perfectly in the breeze. There’s Gene Hackman as the coach, glowering until he smiles ever-so-slightly, showing that one-two punch of affability and intensity for which he is so justly revered. And there’s the usual football-movie footage interspersed with the usual fan and coach and owner reaction shots, cheerleaders in cute red outfits, and guy-bonding scenes galore, by fisticuffs and comic hijinks. Yes indeed, on the feel-good front, this movie would seem to have it all.
But there’s something else in The Replacements that doesn’t feel so great: a giddily incongruous anti-union politics. It’s one thing to make movie heroes out of everymen characters: common entertainment industry wisdom has it that in viewers want to see underdogs win and villains (say, obscenely rich professional sports team owners) get theirs. It’s another thing to make villains out of union players by aligning them with those rich owners. Certainly, few regular joe viewers will think that union players with multi-million dollar contracts and endorsement deals are underpaid: fans’ generally negative responses to recent pro sports players’ strikes in baseball and basketball have made this point abundantly clear. But even if all this is true, The Replacements’ particular spin on the relationship between unions and management is simplistic and, more often than not, spurious.
It didn’t need to be that way. The plot commences with a droll commentary on the peculiar relations among celebrity, ambition, and masculinity. Former Ohio State star quarterback Shane Falco (Reeves) is working his day job, which is scraping accumulated crap off the bottoms of wealthy people’s boats. While underwater, he espies a football-shaped trophy half-buried in the sand, picks it up and mimes a pass, all still underwater, the sand swirling and the darkness all around him. It’s a cute and resonant image, evoking the past as something buried and blurred, glories now slightly decelerated and distorted in memory. And for a minute, it appears that you’re watching a movie with some original wit, some perspective on sports heroes and rituals, some sense of itself as a genre film.
But no. From this moment on, The Replacements descends into a deep sea of clichés and stereotypes.
Shane, it turns out, is reliving his glory days with a certain ruefulness, because he blew his chance at the pros during a famous Sugar Bowl, when he froze and his team lost, very badly. To provide for his redemption, Vince McKewan’s script based loosely on the 1987 real life NFL strike sets up a loony-tunes situation. And this is: the Washington Sentinels organization, poised to get into the playoffs when the regular team goes on strike, assembles a scab team to win three out of four remaining season games, so that the regular team can return and go for the gold (or whatever it is they go for at the Superbowl). This plot is set in motion by the Sentinels’ avaricious owner, Edward O’Neil (Jack Warden), who has his own manhood issues, namely, a boozy wife who doesn’t understand him. O’Neil hires another guy with issues, an ex-pro-coach with a mysterious fiasco in his past, Jimmy McGinty (Hackman).
By all appearances, Jimmy is determined to employ men who might benefit from a second chance. Shane is an obvious example, though at the time Jimmy approaches him, he doesn’t know that; to the contrary, he’s under the ridiculous impression that he’s happy in his unfootballed, unpressured, relatively demasculinized life. But Shane and his fellow recruits quickly accept the notion that they might reclaim their “lost” self-esteem by reclaiming their “lost” manhood. Specifically, the scab team is comprised of guys who almost made it and guys who never played the game in their lives, for instance, a sumo wrestler (Ace Yunomine) who eats raw eggs before game and pukes on the field: how comical is that? The rest of the motley lineup includes butter-fingered receiver Clifford Franklin (Orlando Jones), ex-SWAT jarhead Danny (Jon Favreau), closed-mouthed con Earl (Michael Jace), scrawny soccer player/kicker (Rhys Ifans), a deaf kid named Brian Murphy (David Denman), and two burly brothers working as rap-star bodyguards, Andre (Michael Taliferro) and Jamal (Faizon Love). It goes without saying that when characters can be described in such reductive terms, there’s not much room for “development.”
How ironic then, that what appears to be at stake in The Replacements is a kind of identity. For most of the players, it’s a rather straight-ahead masculine identity, the kind that you achieve when you earn trophies, crush skulls, hear crowds roar, or, in the case of Shane, you win the girl, hardworking Sentinels cheerleader Annabelle (Melrose Place‘s Brooke Langton). Shane and Jimmy bond immediately, because they’re the film’s stars and because they share a similar identity issue, that is, they want to be redeemed for their past perceived failures (losing football games). Or, as Jimmy puts it in a closing voice-over, they want to gain that sense of “greatness” which, “no matter how brief, stays with a man.” But Jimmy’s inspiring observation isn’t really what The Replacements’ focus; it’s more like an afterthought he lobs at viewers when the credits roll, so viewers can leave the theater feeling good even though the scab team whether they win or lose will be back to their old lives as soon as the last game is done. This is, after all, what it means to be replacements: you are, in a word, temporary.
The movie’s real focus is not on reclaiming that particular (and frankly depressing) identity. Remember: it wants you feel good. So The Replacments gives you a team to root for, the scabs (granted, they’re very nice scabs). And to make them palatable, the film offers a singular villain who’s self-obsessed and hateful. The Sentinels’ regular quarterback, Eddie (Brett Cullen) apparently has nothing better to do with his time than hang around the stadium all day, order his large, black, ruffian teammates to turn over Shane’s working-man’s pickup truck, and yell malicious epithets at the replacement players as they go to work each day. The fact that Eddie owns a privileged-man’s Porsche (which Shane’s compatriots, the bodyguard brothers, shoot in retaliation), or that O’Neil wants him to come back for the final game, only makes Eddie more heinous (and how a union player ends up on the same side as the owner is one of the film’s mysteries). Add to this Eddie’s long ago seduction and abandonment of the lovely Annabelle, and you have the complete scoundrel, in urgent need of come-uppance.
Because this tired rivalry between Good Shane and Bad Eddie will not engage anyone’s interest for an hour and a half, The Replacements fills in with the secondary, “comic” characters, defined by their race and/or class and/or disability (in the case of the deaf kid). They put their faith in Shane, bond in a bar fight with the union players, sing and dance to “I Will Survive,” and play ferocious football while their female counterparts, a crew of strippers-turned-scab-cheerleaders, make skanky moves on the sidelines. (So lascivious is their performance that male football fans’ jaws drop and female fans cover their children’s eyes.) No matter how bloodied and frustrated the replacements get on the field, they come back again and again, for more… something. They are becoming men.
The movie offers predictably smarmy sportscasters’ narration for this evolution, by John Madden and Pat Summerall (“The Washington Sentinels are playing like there’s no tomorrow, and for them, there isn’t!”). The very fact of their schtick highlights the who’s-in-bed-with-whom politics of the pro football industry (it’s a crass commercial venture, tv networks orchestrate team schedules, rich owners stay rich, etc., etc.). But what they have to say never offers much in the way of actual humor or insight. I couldn’t help but wonder how different The Replacements might have been had Dennis Miller been commentating.