By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist
"The Replacements" opens with the immortal Keanu Reeves, clad in scuba gear, throwing a bronze football trophy underwater. No real reason. The ball goes about 10 feet before sinking, causing Keanu to inexplicably start celebrating like a moron. It's probably his best scene in the movie, for two reasons: 1) he's underwater, and 2) there's no dialogue.
Thumbs down to Keanu in "The Replacements," says our expert.
More importantly, the tone is set. This is gonna be one baaaaaaaaaad sports movie.
And that's the key here, whether you -- the home viewer, the person who accidentally stumbles across "The Replacements" on HB012 -- can accept the fact you're about to waste your time watching an enjoyably crappy film. You know what you're getting even before it begins. Keanu. Hackman. A cast of motley, clichéd characters. Some football scenes. A happy ending. It reminds me of the summer when my old roommate Birdman grew a ghastly goatee, which was best described by our buddy Nick's father as "delightfully unappealing." That's "The Replacements." It's delightfully unappealing. In other words, it's so bad, you can't help but enjoy yourself.
Here's where I stand: I love enjoyably bad sports movies. "Karate Kid 3"? "American Anthem"? "Gymkata"? "Amazing Grace and Chuck"? I have 'em all on tape. All of them have one thing in common: They must pass the "Mystery Science Theater" test. In other words, if you can lounge with your buddies, watch the bad movie, eke out 90 minutes worth of laughs and insults, and
keep everyone's interest ... well, that's a successful venture. And that's the difference between an Enjoyably Bad Movie (like "The Replacements") and a Bad Movie (like "Cobb" or "Play It to the Bone").
I'll give you an example. Last winter, some of my college buddies stayed with me in Boston (visiting for a wedding). After they arrived on a Thursday night, we abused our bodies downtown until 3 a.m., capped off by the requisite Store 24 stop for "unhealthy food that sits in your stomach during your drunken sleep and gives you weird nightmares." We fought hangovers Friday morning, grabbed a quick lunch and laid low for the rest of the day (to conserve energy for Friday night's festivities). To cheer ourselves up, we decided to rent a movie and noticed "The Replacements" was available. Bingo! Let the one-liners begin!
Hey, you've been there, too. Some movies just transcend the moment. For instance, if I watched "The Replacements" by myself, I would have been bored, because I couldn't have bounced jokes off anyone else. It's the same reason why you need to watch "Sorority Life" or any awards show with at least one other person. It's why people used to throw "Melrose Place" parties in the mid-'90s. And it's why "Mystery Science Theater" was so entertaining in its prime.
As for "The Replacements," we might as well start tooling on it right now. The plot is based loosely on an NFL strike, when teams hired scab players during the early portion of the '87 season. In the movie, Washington's pro team (the Sentinels, not the Redskins) searches for replacements following a player's strike with four games remaining in the season.
Give Gene Hackman a postage stamp because he mailed in this entire performance.
Gene Hackman plays the Washington coach with a glazed, "You're paying me in cash, right?" look on his face for most of the movie. Why would Hackman accept another coaching role after "Hoosiers," arguably the greatest sports movie of all-time? Your guess is as good as mine. In terms of mail-in efforts, this ranks right up there -- you could almost imagine Hackman showing up at the set at 8:59 in the morning for a 9 a.m. scene and screaming at the director, "Make sure the Cue-Card Guy writes in bigger letters today or I'm walking off the damned set!"
(His name in the movie? Doesn't matter. He's playing Gene Hackman. Half the time you're expecting him to say things like, "I want four handoffs before every pass!", or to measure the uprights in a visiting stadium and tell his players, "I think you'll find those same measurements back at our stadium in D.C.")
Jack Warden plays Hackman's owner, and I can't believe he isn't dead yet. He must share an oxygen chamber with Abe Vigoda. (As usual, Jack gets off the best line in the movie -- during the first scab game, he blurts out, "I've seen monkey s--- fights in the zoo that were more organized than this!") Once the players go on strike, Jack and Gene get together and decide they need to unearth some quality scabs for a playoff run.
Of course, Gene has been keeping a list of motley has-beens and "we've seen 'em before" football characters, including these guys:
The token floundering QB who needs to turn his career around -- Shane "Footsteps" Falco (played by Keanu), a former college star QB whose career went down in flames during a disastrous Sugar Bowl. They never describe how poorly Shane played that day, but after two hours of referencing it, we can only guess that he threw 10 INTs and fumbled 16 times. More importantly, how come we haven't dubbed a crappy NFL quarterback "Footsteps" yet? Doesn't Rob "Footsteps" Johnson have a nice ring to it?
The token psychopath, a SWAT team officer/crazy linebacker played by ... get ready for this ... former "Swingers" star Jon Favreau! How the mighty have fallen! It's impossible to overstate how dreadful Favreau is here; he makes you wince in pain during certain scenes, a career-ending performance that paved the way for his current gig on IFC. Poor Favreau. Didn't he learn from Joe Piscopo that bulking up kills a comic actor's career?
The token crazy foreigner, a drunken, chain-smoking Welsh soccer star turned field-goal kicker (played by the dude from "Notting Hill") who yells things like "You just hold it, and I'll kick the bloody piss out of it!" I actually liked this character even though I don't really like English people.
More tokens: The token "intimidating black guy with a heart of gold" (two bouncers turned offensive lineman) ... the token "comic relief black guy" (a lightning-fast wide receiver who should have been named Billy Mays Hayes) ... the token "menacing ex-convict" (running back Earl Wilkinson, a k a "Joe Boo Two") ... the token "likable handicapped guy" (a deaf tight end) ... the token "obscenely obese offensive lineman," with one twist -- he's Japanese (I think this was Eugene Chung in an unbilled cameo). But where was the token "dumb guy from the South"? And why didn't Ted McGinley or Scott Bakula sign on as the token "washed-up safety looking for one last chance at glory"?
Alas, the team takes shape. During the first practice, Keanu shows up late and has to deal with the striking players, led by QB Eddie Martell (played by one of Those Guys in a role that Corbin Bernsen turned down at the last second). They end up flipping Keanu's jeep over as he fights off the urge to scream, "I am an EFFF BEE EYE agent!"
(Plot twist alert! Plot twist alert!)
With his jeep incapacitated, Keanu weasels a ride home from Washington's cute and bubbly head cheerleader, Annabelle, played by former "Melrose Place" star Brooke Langton in a 90-minute ad for the Miracle Bra. (For some reason, Annabelle also owns a bar in downtown Washington. And she's single. So, to recap, we have a cute head NFL cheerleader who also owns her own bar ... and she's single. This happens all the time.) Poor Brooke. Imagine playing Andrew Shue's girlfriend and Keanu Reeves' girlfriend in the same lifetime? The two worst actors of this generation! Can you put that on a résumé? Anyway, she doesn't seem interested in Keanu, because she avoids dating football players; he doesn't seem interested in her, because she has breasts.
Jon Favreau failed to learn from the mistakes of Joe Piscopo.
Poor Brooke Langton has played the girlfriend of both Keanu Reeves and Andrew Shue in the same lifetime.
That's basically the setup. Keanu needs to redeem himself. Hackman needs to say football things. The quirky side characters need to do quirky things. Keanu and the cheerleader struggle to find any semblance of sexual chemistry. The director struggles to film some quality football action (I'd give that aspect a B-minus). And we struggle for things to make fun of as the movie stretches along.
My Top 10 favorite moments/sequences/plots:
1. We're subjected to the requisite bar brawl; the requisite "teammate dance sequence" (everyone singing "I Will Survive" in a jail cell, and yes, it's as bad as it sounds); the requisite "puking on the field" scene; the requisite "opponents getting distracted during a game by the cheerleaders" scene; the requisite "big fat lineman catching a pass" scene; the requisite "QB throwing the ball at a defensive lineman's head" scene (ripped off blatantly from "The Longest Yard"); and the requisite "injured veteran belting out the 'You gotta do it' speech to the star during the big game" scene. That's seven cliché scenes! Has to be a record.
2. Keanu playing quarterback ... and pretty well! He hadn't looked that good since his Johnny Utah days. At gunpoint, I would rank him second behind Burt Reynolds for "Hollywood Quarterbacks," only because he provides a "Scott Mitchell in his prime" feel to every game scene.
3. In one dopey subplot, Brooke needs to find new cheerleaders, because the old ones apparently went on strike with the players. (Like this would happen. Did you realize that the cheerleaders were covered in the collective bargaining agreement?) Somehow she ends up hiring strippers who unleash eye-opening, provocative routines on the sidelines; these girls make the Raiderettes look like Catholic school girls. Maybe the only consistently funny gimmick in the whole movie. The XFL should have taken note.
4. When I watched this with my buddies, every Brooke/Keanu scene provoked a barrage of jokes and catcalls, most of which can't be printed here. It was the gift of comedy that kept giving, between their utter lack of spark and Keanu being in rare Keanu form, even for him (he hasn't been this "so bad he's good" since "Point Break"). The funniest scene happens during the middle of the movie, when Brooke visits his boat while he's working on deck, and they plow through the following exchange (play along and imagine Keanu mumbling these lines):
Brooke: Hey, Shane.
Keanu (like he's just been electroshocked): Hey.
Brooke: What are you doing?
Keanu: Uh, my job.
Brooke (fake laugh): You're a professional football player.
Keanu (almost flat-lining): Sure, this week. When that's all over, you know, I'll, uh, be back here, I ... I don't want to lose my customers.
Brooke: Well, I was on my way to work ... I thought you might need a ride?
Keanu (thinking about filming "The Matrix 2"): Um, good, I-uh ... I got my truck back.
Brooke: How is it?
Keanu (thinking): Flatter. But ... it runs.
(That has to be the classic Keanu scene of all-time. I'm not kidding. You really have to see it. Just trust me.)
5. Speaking of mailing it in, how 'bout Hackman wearing a fedora on the sidelines and spouting cliches like, "I look at you and I see two men -- the man you are and the man you ought to be" ... "Winners always want the ball when the game's on the line" ... "There can only be one leader out there -- you be it" ... "A real man admits his fears" ... "There is no tomorrow for you!" and so on. They should revoke his "Hoosiers" residuals. I kept hoping that Barbara Hershey would emerge from the stands, dressed all in black, just to shoot him in the chest.
6. What about John Madden and Pat Summerall providing commentary for the games? And you thought Hackman was shameless ... didn't these two make enough cash off video game residuals? Flag on the play! Pat looked like he was being propped up by two extras; I'm not even sure he was awake. On the bright side, Madden apparently got $500 every time he said, "What the heck's going on down there?"
7. The "I need you to get me the ball"/"I'll get you the ball!" exchange between Hackman and Favreau during the first replacement game, which can't possibly be done justice here -- suffice it to say, it's in the Pantheon of "Worst Sports Movie Scenes of All-Time," just below De Niro and Snipes fighting at home plate in "The Fan" and Lynn-Holly Johnson skating blind in "Ice Castles." You can't even believe it's happening as it's happening.
(Note: There's one more almost-as-horrendous scene, when Keanu finally makes a move on the cheerleader in her bar. The Police's "Every Breath You Take" is playing in the background, they stare at one another in uncomfortable close-ups, then Madden and Summerall provide commentary like Shane is trying to get into the end zone. And no, I'm not making any of this up.)
8. Only Hollywood would create a scenario where a bunch of scabs are the good guys and the striking workers are the bad guys. Gee, I wonder why this movie didn't make it? Next up from "The Replacements" producers: A ragtag group of Nazi rugby players battle a group of evil Allied stars during World War II in "Mein Scrum"!
9. Keanu belts out a monologue on his fear of "quicksand" at one team meeting, with prodding from Hackman, written as one of those emotional, "This team is coming together" scenes. Unfortunately (fortunately?), it quickly becomes another classic Keanu "mumbling his lines" moment:
"You're playing, and you think everything's going fine, but then one thing goes wrong ... and another ... and another ... and you try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink ... until you can't move ... you can't breathe ... because you're in over your head. Like quicksand."
(The best part: When a teammate responds, "That's some deep s---, Shane. Some deep s---." I wish I had seen this in the theater just to hear people laughing out loud. Keanu might be the first actor who actually graduated from Unintentional Comedy Rating School. He's in another stratosphere.)
10. Everything that happens with the ending. Eddie Martell crosses the picket line and supplants Keanu as the starting QB before a must-win home game against Dallas. Of course, Dallas' entire team crosses the line, too, meaning the replacement players are playing a real NFL team. For whatever reason, Keanu can't stay on as the backup QB, causing a self-spiral in which he blows off the cute and bubbly cheerleader, pouts at home and watches the first half of the game on his boat.
But the team isn't responding to the prima donna Martell ... they need Keanu. They need Keanu. That leads to this unforgettable halftime exchange in the locker room:
Martell (throwing a tirade): Nobody can beat Dallas with these losers!
Keanu (stepping through the door): I can.
Martell: Falco, it's great to see you. Now get the hell out of my locker room!
Keanu (turning to Hackman): Coach?
Hackman (squinting to see cue card ): What took you so long?
Keanu (making dumb Keanu smile): Traffic.
Hackman: Suit up!
So Keanu returns for the second half, bounces Martell from the lineup, comes out of the tunnel, smooches the cheerleader, erases a 17-point deficit and ... well, you can guess the rest. That's another thing about bad sports movies -- they need to be as predictable as possible. With that said, I'm embarrassed to report that the ending gave me chills (thanks to the Wallflowers remake of "Heroes").
The question remains: Where does "The Replacements" rank among the most enjoyably bad sports movies of all-time? Keanu sums it up best near the end of the film:
"I know you're tired, I know you're hurtin' ... I wish I could say something that's classy and inspirational ... but it wouldn't be our style. Pain heals, chicks dig scars ... glory lasts forever."
And so do bad sports movies. God bless 'em.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.