RIORI Vol 3, Installment 32: Howard Deutch’s “The Replacements” (2000)

Replacements one sheet

The “Players” (get it?)

Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman, Brooke Langton, Orlando Jones, Jon Favreau, Rhys Ifans and Jack Warden, with Fazion Love, Ace Yonamine, Troy Winbush, David Denman and Michael Jace (plus John Madden and Pat Summerall, naturally).

The Story…

The Washington Sentinels have gone on strike, but the game must go on. Especially since the playoffs are a mere few weeks away. F*ck throwing in the towel, Sentinels’ owner Ed calls on and old coaching buddy of his, Jimmy to rally up some scabby troops and assemble a working team. Albeit a team of washouts, criminals, head cases, drunken soccer stars, former sumo wrestlers, a deaf halfback and of course a quarterback with a sketchy history.

Uh, maybe “working” is a relative term here.

The Rant…

Americans love an underdog story, especially in cinema. It’s a tried-and-true trope—gimmick is probably a better word—of having some misfit (or group of misfits) struggle against societal odds in a clumsy way only to later have THAT BIG MOMENT where everything bonks together and happily ever after pass the gravy. It’s an old story employed as long as the lifespan of your average Twinkie. Wholesome goodness.

The underdog story has also been played the f*ck out in Hollywood. It had its time, its moments. It even won an Academy Award or two (think Forrest Gump or the original Rocky) when done tastefully. But the underdog tale is a horrible cliche, run amok for way too many years at the multiplex. Sure, audiences never seem to get sick of the formula, but I consider that way of thinking and feeling in a stark contrast to how True Americans ultimately embrace—and eventually deject—the hardscrabble hero for a given, very short time frame. It’s happened before and sure as sh*t it’ll happen again. And again. And I hate you all.

The “American Dream” is based on a work hard/get ahead ethos. It usually also stems from the successful being borne into a meager existence. Folks like Abe Lincoln, JC Penney, Sir Richard Branson and even the McDonald brothers are good examples. The “humble beginnings” story is a delicious one in fiction, too. Including the two films above, you can probably name endless movies of this ilk; people overcoming great odds to becoming a success, with all the ups, downs and trappings that go along with it.

America laps this crap up, in the movies and other media outlets. We love to raise the underdog upon our shoulders in praise, and later toss them into the gutter when they get too successful, famous and eventually ubiquitous. The relationship sours. No surprise that Steve Jobs was lionized after the success of the iPod, iPhone, iBlender, etc only to be picked apart as some Machiavellian control freak when Apple replaced morality in the country. And after he died? Whoo boy, media field day. No wonder Wozniuk stayed in the basement.

Why is this? I mean, there are plenty of entrepreneurs et al that avoid this spin cycle. Ben and Jerry still make great ice cream, despite being retired but keeping their company’s charitable causes on point. No matter how pretentious the U2 guys get, they still keep their heads from getting relatively too far into the clouds and still release solid (not necessarily great) albums while being philanthropic. Even the late, hard-working Paul Newman kept his humility regarding his craft and his charities.

Does generosity have something to do with it? Work hard, get ahead, later share the wealth in a Carnegie sense? Avoid the egotistical muck that gets smeared all over Access Hollywood? Maybe. But the phenomenon of the underdog roller coaster persists notwithstanding. It’s almost as if Americans want to see their heroes fail. An ongoing cycle of schadenfreude. Praise Kanye at first and strip him to the bone later (even if he hadn’t invited it. Picking on poor, little Taylor. The nerve). Hell, you bought his f*cking albums already. Where do you think that bank account and ego come from, in that order? Blame yourself folks, and be patient for the next man on a white horse to ride into Hollywood.

What’s my point? None really. Does the underdog film appeal to us because of the above, heartwarming template? Does the opposite in reality stem from jealousy? Is it all just of us watching Springer? I’m no social critic—not professionally at any rate—but I think the underdog tale is a very vicarious one. Most of us wake up everyday feeling like a Tom Waits lyric, but hope later in the day we’ll write Rain Dogs. That’s why we put the album on.

I’m thinking the corruption of the underdog stems from said dog believing his or her own press. Enough people deify you, you’ll claim you wrote the Bible. Take for instance this pop culture example: we have two musicians. Both worked together. Both got terribly famous, wealthy and eventually revered for their work. When they parted ways and pursued solo careers, both maintained their cachets and appeal as music makers. Barring tragedy (one lost his wife to cancer, the other was killed), their legacies were secured, and integrity mostly intact. However one got a lot of sh*t for being outspoken while the other dodged most of the slings and arrows of universal fame for the remainder of his years.

One was Paul McCartney, the other John Lennon.

How did one get public grief while the other (barring dying young) mostly avoided the media mill post-Beatles? I don’t know. Best ask George Harrison…um, back in 99.

All right. Enough bullish*tting. Onto this week’s installment. Not sure if the ensuing torches and pitchforks are relevant to my ramblings, if only to reinforce that the underdog sports comedy is a warhorse beyond being bound for the Elmer’s factory.

Hell. Well anyway, it’s time for kickoff…

Pro athletes can be a fickle, spoiled lot. Even though they work hard getting pummeled on a weekly basis, one can’t ignore Bentleys going unpolished or mansions with two of the three pools with busted filters. They want more money; equal wages for equal time. And what’s that birdsh*t still doing on my digital sundial?!?

Strike, strike, strike.

The Washington Sentinels’ owner, Ed O’Neill (Warden) won’t have any of this pouting and pussing out. Playoffs are in a month, by God, and we’re gonna have a team to play. What to do?

Desperate times and all. Ed calls on his old coaching bud Jimmy McGinty (Hackman) for just the ticket. Jimmy’ll assemble a motley crew of players who don’t need their Maseratis detailed, Swedish masseuses on their glutes and stock indexes checked every time they fart. No. Jimmy’s got the action. Get hungry players; the guys who love football and wanna be champs, if only for a little while.

Ed’s wary of this. Who exactly does Jimmy have on his roster?

Well there’s Cliff Franklin (Jones), who can run like the wind and catch like a blind quadriplegic. We got insaniac cop Dan Bateman (Favreau) who lives to…hurt things. With some mild, legitimate pro sports experience there’s lushy, chain-smoking Welsh soccer star Nigel “The Leg” Gruff (Ifans). And our quarterback, the sullen, maybe cursed Shane Falco (Reeves) with a big chip and a long hangdog. They all wanna play bad. Maybe they’ll only just play bad. Either that or head back to their cells.

What could possibly go wrong?


All right. I kind of knew what I was getting into when The Replacements arrived, and I wasn’t disappointed. This meant I expected to be disappointed, and the movie delivered.

Let’s forget most of the philosophizing from above for a few. Most of it. A lot of heady crap for a throwaway sports comedy, right? Disregarding my usual, subtle-as-neon social commentary, the whole underdog thing only works when the dog in question (or in the case of The Replacements, the whole pack) is fleshed-out. Rocky Balboa was a Regular Joe. Forrest Gump was “stupid.” Delta House were a bunch of losers. We know this why? Backstory and good characterization. The Replacements’ cast—although not boring. Stereotypical yes, but not boring—only comes across as half-baked. And not in the Jim Breuer sense either.

Back in the day (the late 70s to be exact) a underdog sub-genre took the cinemas by storm: the underdog sports comedy. It all started with the original Bad News Bears (I can’t believe I have to preface a title that way. Everything is being remade and rebooted at such a rate I can’t keep count let alone keep the sh*t in my queue), the ur-ne’er-do-well does well sports comedy, of course cast with insufferable imps that eventually grow on you. Bears was the gateway—for good or for ill—for movies like Slap Shot, North Dallas Forty, The Longest Yard and so forth. What made these retreads work was good characterization and a degree of wonkiness with the characters that made the show a decent one.

What made The Replacements tank was a dearth of consistently notable characters. The older films weren’t fun because they were underdog stories (although they were), rather the dogs in question were really f*cked up. Remember what I said about believable characters in film? They don’t have to be likable; they have to be relatable and interesting. I mean, the footballers in The Longest Yard were bloody convicts, before God (and forget the Sandler remake, please?). Not a lot of nice guys in those classic flicks (the National Anthem brawl in Slap Shot? Very patriotic), and the better for it.

Replacements major faux pas is setting us up with drab, stereotypical characters that are written to be likable. If you wanna have an underdog sports comedy, you need to have a cast of miscreants that get under your skin at first and gradually win you over. I’m not saying this as an absolute, but it worked pretty good in the past.

Maybe more simply, Replacements had boring, color-by-numbers characters.

This was quite the shame, too, since the eclectic cast was stellar and totally misused. If they all were better written their predictable stereotypes could have been more palatable. Even funny, if only on an inconsistent tilt.

The other major blight on this movie was it was totally formula in action here. I know, I know. Kinda alluded to that issue before. Just was girding myself for the slaughter waiting on my DVD player. I packed my rucksack well. Sure enough, I got me predictable dialogue, paper thin plot—muted, too, like the movie was bored with itself—its inevitable outcome and trying too hard to recreate the feel of those old skool sports comedies. Even my wife said it was boring, and she usually likes…movies not like this. So my disappointment was well prepped.

But here’s the hell of it: The Replacements was funny, if only in fits and sputtering starts. Despite being an obvious Major League rip-off (which oddly was a late-entry sports movie that worked), where that film’s silliness was inspired and a decent homage to its ancestors, almost everything in Replacements is rote and smelled like the crew was asleep at the wheel. If the few funny moments were buttered over the course of the movie we might’ve had a football Major League to enjoy. We didn’t.

I know. I’m slagging on this week’s travesty pretty hard. It took me three nights to finish it, I was that bored. But I gotta be fair, even a blind squirrel finds a nut with a chewy nougat center rolling around outside the multiplex once in a while. What few moments of funny were good, they were pretty damned amusing. Thankfully, almost inevitably these yuk-yuks came from the eclectic cast; they managed to extricate themselves once in a while from the corporate Hollywood mire now and then.

The biggest treat in The Replacements was Favreau’s maniac performance as…well, a maniac: the unhinged Dan Bateman. Prior to this movie, Favreau made his mark portraying lovable, schlumpy losers (e.g.: Swingers, Very Bad Things, PCU). Not here. His Bateman is a wild dog of a nut job, hamming it up and behaving like a toon out of Wacky Races. Sure, his character is a cipher, but sometimes you need a little chewing gum once in a while. Just go along with Favreau and roll your eyes.

Speaking of an actor being out of place with himself, how did Hackman get conned into this movie? I figure he just wanted to catch his breath and have some fun. If you consider Hackman’s fifty-plus year career, the man’s been riding on a sine wave of great films balanced against stuff like The Replacements. Most esteemed career actors have a CV that can get scattershot. I mean, Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda didn’t quit drilling once they hit oil. Once you thought their roll slowed down—bang—out popped a “comeback” role.

Not so with Hackman. Consistent peaks and valleys across the board. Yeah, Replacements was a valley, but still he delivered his best. His best just being Gene Hackman. The Conversation and/or Unforgiven The Replacements ain’t. Then again, that’s not a fair comparison (duh). What Hackman brings to this movie is Hackman. His work is like sex: when it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, its still pretty good. And I’d be hard pressed to think otherwise that the man was off on a goof here. I mean, look at the throwback Bear Bryant hat he’s sporting. A nodding wink, fer sure.

Despite the goofiness, Hackman and even Reeves maintain their cachet. Like I said in the Watcher installment, Keanu is a passive actor; everything happens to him and he initiates nothing. His Falco is no different. C’mon, he’s yanked back into the fray with reluctance. He’s riddled with doubt and under confident. He’s the primo underdog here (would that make him an omega dog? Nah, sounds like a reject from the X-Men). That being said, Reeves is in his element here, as usual. It ain’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s kind of comforting in a way, especially since he’s portraying a classic reluctant hero type here. It offsets the motley crew, begrudgingly highlighting them. When you got a heavyweight like Hackman and welterweight Reeves on the marquee, its easy to ignore the minor players. Unless you’re bored with the marquee.

That’s where I felt Jones and Ifans entered stage right. I spoke of my affinity for Ifans’ comic talent before, and it’s still intact here. He has got to be the best peacock plunked down into American cinema. I don’t know how he fares as a star in the UK on his own, but when cast in an American film his simultaneous fish-out-of-water/this is my pond (bitch!) attitude is both endearing and forehead slapping. I find he’s only funny when totally out of place against American actors. His incongruity as Gruff the “football” player clearly not belonging in the Yank camp shows off some knowing goofiness that landed The Replacements a simple Three Stooges feel. Ifans was a stooge of one, and that’s a complement.

Orlando Jones still thinks he’s on the set of MadTV here. His Franklin is a rubbery clown, and since seeing his versatility on television with his protean comic talents, I liked his Dangerfield-esque delivery in the movie. The only problem with his delivery in The Replacements is that you can’t appreciate it unless you base it against his work on MadTV. It’s kind of a detriment, and otherwise his Franklin is just another nervous Nelly. His performance well illustrates the schizo nature of the film: The Replacements can be an amusing film, so long as there’s some context, like with Ifans. Or Hackman. Or even Love, for Pete’s sake. You really shouldn’t have to do homework to appreciate those guys’ efforts with ha-ha.

I guess that’s the biggest issue with The Replacements. You shouldn’t have to try and find the funny here. Gaging that, it ultimately comes down to not the underdog schtick, the prickly casting or the derivative plot. I walked into all of that sh*t with eyes wide open. No. You shouldn’t have to study a dumb comedy to figure out what to laugh at. Eyes wide open I knew what to expect. I didn’t think it was going to be so hard to understand why.

The Replacements is a hollow affair, and the actors clash violently against a tried-and-true plot device. The movie was an exercise in desperate tedium, baiting yours truly with precious few chunks of comic gold. Yet it still supplied the warm fuzzy that accompanies an underdog sports comedy. Christ, it was exhausting.

So was this installment. File it under unnecessary roughness.

Oh, shut up. I’m tired and you’re ugly.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, but with reservations. Huh? I know. There’s some nuggets here amongst the silt. The Replacements is a lazy Saturday afternoon movie, one designed to get you away from the Internet porn and lawn darts for a bit. I sure wouldn’t pay the the 30 cents to download it though.

Stray Observations…

  • What’s up with the soundtrack? It’s both out of place and eerily appropriate. Here’s a movie made in the 00s with an 80s-flavored soundstripe. I kinda dig it.
  • “By Welsh standards.”
  • Nice boots there.
  • “Thunderstruck!”
  • He we have Jon Madden at his most sedate.
  • “You’re late.” “Car trouble.”
  • Admittedly, the “I Will Survive” bit in holding best showcased Jones’ comedic talents.
  • “Nothin’ like a good bar brawl. Avoid them at all costs.” So that’s what I did wrong.
  • This is a PG-13 movie straining to be an R. The MPAA lost here.
  • “Let’s play football, bitch.”

Next Installment…

Hey. Wouldn’t accidentally traveling back to Medieval France disrupt history’s Timeline? Not to mention Paul Walker’s credibility as a bankable actor? Ces’t la vie.

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