With apologies to James Agee and Walker Evans, let us now praise Keanu Reeves. Who in today's Hollywood landscape is better suited to play a lapsed football quarterback with insecurity issues than Keanu? The answer, as The Replacements clearly indicates, is no one.
The Replacements tells the story of several down on their luck misfits, each with some football experience in their checkered past, who get recruited as scabs when the regular season players go on strike. The replacement coach (helmed here by the irascible Gene Hackman) presents a list to the embattled owner (Jack Warden), and insists on doing things his way. As the names are read, we get concise visual portraits ranging in length from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes: the overzealous LAPD officer with a mean temper; the sumo wrestler with an eating problem; the British ex-soccer star and current pub owner with a severe gambling habit; and least... make that last, the ex-quarterback Shane Falco who lost the Sugar Bowl by 45 points. Shane now lives on a ramshackle boat and scrapes barnacles off rich people's luxurious yachts for a living. To say that the narrative here is painted in broad strokes would be an understatement.
Nonetheless, Director Howard Deutch (with similar, successful, broad-stroke genre films like Grumpier Old Men, Some Kind of Wonderful and Pretty in Pink on his resumé) pulls off a genuinely funny film with heart, a little sex appeal, and a few well-intentioned morals.
We follow our band of misfits on their journey to the stadium, through practice and locker room squabbles. At first, they don't quite gel and the losses are palpable.
The miscues and pratfalls are funny despite their predictability. And when the team starts to click and Gene Hackman smiles (even if he is a long way from the Oscar-winning Hoosiers), no audience with a pulse could refuse to root for the home team. The emotions are perfectly cued also by the soundtrack, which draws on the manipulative beats of pop songs worthy of a Tommy Boy Jock Jam compilation. There are blessedly few subplots to interfere with the good-naturedness of the film's clearly stated goal, which is simply to entertain. And to entertain simply.
Of course, Keanu does have a love interest played by Melrose Place veteran Brooke Langton. As the head cheerleader Annabelle with her own set of replacement problems, Langton pouts and sighs and provides one more reason to cheer for the scabs.
The success of this film-lite is due to two overriding elements. The first is an utter lack of pretension, and the second is our good man Keanu. It's summer and all the vacation-addled public really needs is to kill two heat-free hours in an air-conditioned multiplex. To this end, The Replacements does a far better job than several other studio offerings. Deutch knows how much is too much and delivers the entertainment without offering any challenges or false misguided pretension (one need only look to Oliver Stone's overwrought Any Given Sunday for the definition of "too much"). As for Reeves, he occupies the role with just enough vapid charm to serve the plot. The films in which he accomplishes just that have all been winners. The Matrix would have fallen terribly flat had there been an actor with untapped depth playing the reluctant Neo. The same can be said for Bill and Ted, Point Break and My Own Private Idaho. His cinematic failures are littered with roles that demanded more from him than he could deliver.
The Replacements will join North Dallas Forty, The Mighty Ducks, Major League (the first, not the sequel), The Bad News Bears, and Blue Chips as a sport film guilty pleasure.