Humor columnist Dave Barry, in his book Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys, describes the difference between guys and men by noting some qualities that guys often have. For instance, guys like neat stuff, are not good at communicating their intimate feelings, and like a really pointless challenge, which is exactly what The Replacements is really about—a bunch of everyday guys who get the chance to play for the NFL for five weeks as a result of a players’ strike over salary caps (the story is inspired by a real-life strike in 1987). These guys—quarterbacked by ex-college star Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves) and coached by Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman)—are charged with winning three out of the season’s last four games in order to take the Washington DC Sentinels to the playoffs. And they agree to play for what reason, exactly? A really pointless challenge—they know fully well that, as replacements, they are replaceable, and their NFL careers will end with the strike or the season.
Still, the quest for glory does something to a guy. Shane Falco misses the glory of his Ohio State days, before the disastrous Sugar Bowl that ended his football career and bruised his ego. Falco agrees to lead a team of misfits: intensely violent ex-SWAT team member named Danny (Jon Favreau); a Japanese sumo wrestler (Ace Yunomine); Welsh soccer player (Rhys Ifans, from Notting Hill) who refuses to give up his cigarette habit, even on the field; Franklin (Orlando Jones), a swift mini-mart clerk able to catch shoplifters but not the ball; a con (Michael Jace, playing the “scary black felon”) on loan for five weeks from a Maryland state prison; a sweet deaf player, Brian Murphy (David Denman); and a pair of immense bodyguards (Michael Taliferro and Faizon Love).
The games are more comedic than they are rough; although the repeated line, “That’s why girls don’t play” lets the audience know just how rough we’re supposed to think the games can be. Somehow, despite the numerous slapsticky mishaps on and off the field—for instance, barfing and brawling—the team pulls together in order to win games. They are aided in their efforts by Falco’s love interest, head cheerleader Annabelle Ferrell (Brooke Langton) and her squad of exotic dancers, whom she recruits, we assume, because the regular cheerleaders join the players on strike (the movie never explains if these cheerleaders are unionized). Annabelle and company assist the team by distracting opposing teams with their racy moves and by giving the replacements female companionship.
We can laugh at and sympathize with both sets of replacements—players and cheerleaders—because their idiosyncrasies are adorable, at once innocent and extreme. Despite their clumsy effectiveness as a team, the players (with the exception of Falco) are occasions for comedy more than they are “athletes.” And our laughter at their hijinks only highlights Falco’s appeal and normalcy, compared to the rest of the team. As if to highlight his blandness, the film sets his scenes to “classic rock.” The song during Falco’s final kiss with Annabelle—David Bowie’s “Heroes”—made the audience groan when the lyrics told us, “I will be king, you will be queen, and we could be heroes.” Shane is super nice, standing up for Brian when he’s hassled by the self-absorbed pro quarterback, Eddie Martel (Brett Cullen). As a result of Shane’s moral stand, the team comes together for the first time, for a bar fight.
Throughout the film, such guy activity is shot from ground-level, as if to make it seem ordinary rather than spectacular. To this end of “familiarity,” the games take on a predictable editing rhythm: the camera shows the ball hike, cuts to the scantily-clad cheerleaders, to tackle, to cheerleaders performing lewd gyrations, to fans’ reactions, to touchdown, to cheerleaders celebrating. Never have I seen a football movie where the cheerleaders play such an important role in the development of the game.
Still, it is the guys who predominate the film’s visuals and themes. The Replacements does not ask the audience to ponder what it means to be an All-American guy, or where football fits into that identity. Rather, it tells us what it means, or what it’s supposed to mean. To be an All American guy, you have to be able to 1) take a hit on the field, 2) take a punch at the bar, 3) drink beer anywhere, 4) be attracted to women, and 5) love and know how to play football. On the other hand, to be a good woman, you have to be an exotic dancer, look great in a cheerleader costume, and drive badly (as Annabelle does during an early comic scene).
The film presents these stereotypes as funny and easy to swallow, because they are common. In other words, viewers are—as usual—encouraged to laugh at the un-beautiful people of the world. A trite montage showing cheerleader tryouts is a prime example: picture a series of awkward, overweight or otherwise “weird” women attempting the roger rabbit. And yet, The Replacements is bearable, mainly because of its utter lack of pretense, its focus on glory for regular guys, not prima donna pros. Still, the replacements achieve their brilliance through their moment in the NFL, a moment not available to most everyday joes. Their own daily lives can’t bring them the glory they desire, so they settle for football.