There’s always been a Venn diagram that exists involving movies and their releases on television. One side of the circle labeled movies constantly on cable and the other side being movies I’d watch if I actually came across them… on cable. The Replacements turns 18 this year, and though I realize this is not quite a landmark or rounded out milestone, it’s a film that has constantly found its way into this interesting intersection.
Released in August of 2000, The Replacements by and large came and went in the aftermath of summer. I, personally, have a special place for The Replacements in my heart – Being that it was my first year working at the movie theater. But in all honesty, most people don’t concur (“WHY DIDN’T I CONCUR”, Catch Me If You Can hospital scene) Anyways… moving on.
It carries an above average 6.5 on IMDB, but also a less-than-stellar 41% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a pretty dreadful 30% Metacritic rating. Combine that with the basic plot summary that comes right out of the sports movie handbook, and it does indeed feel like a forgotten 2000 film on paper.
However, cable television has always found a way of being a great equalizer. Not long after it left theaters (in a hurry), The Replacements found a home on multiple channels to the point where even right now in our glorious year of 2018, if you’re clicking through your guide in any given month… you’re likely to stumble upon it. Whether that be Comedy Central, TBS, or TNT – It has this very weird staying power, and not by coincidence either.
To circle back to the plot, it is, again, as plain as a Nilla wafer. Professional football players (no NFL licensing used) ultimately go on strike and team owners recruit replacement players to finish the rest of the season. Specifically, the film follows the Washington Sentinels (Redskins, if this was NFL licensing) and how they took on the task of fielding a team finding scrubs.
The interesting thing about The Replacements is how it’s based mostly on truth. There in fact was a NFL players strike in 1987. Recently, ESPN tackled the actual incident in the 30 for 30 Year of the Scab, an excellent companion to the film we’re dissecting today. Also based in truth is how the Washington Redskins were considered the most successful of the teams fielding replacement players, but, after that parallel… the similarities end.
I absolutely love the opening of this film. We’re brought to a harbor where the sun has just made its appearance. A man emerges from the cabin of his house boat, yawning and wishing he could go back inside, but knowing it’s time to get to work. A precise feel of your typical Monday morning reaction.
We then come across Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves) who puts on his wet suit and proceeds to scrape muck from the bottom of another boat. Presumably this is his job, and it’s evident he’s content with this sort of work. That is until, he spots a metallic football resting on the shallow ocean floor beneath him. Sure enough it has his name engraved along with “All-American” underneath. (Which brings up an interesting thought as to how it got there in the first place, which is never really explored.)
Falco takes a moment to pretend underwater that he is coming under center. Snapping the ball on what is likely a first and goal barely inside the ten yard line. “DOWN. SET. HUT!” He screams inside his mind, dropping back and delivering a slow driving spiral through the thick water that goes… wherever. His fantasy is like Montana hitting Taylor in Super Bowl XXXIII to win the game. He celebrates, fist pumps, and has a brief solitary moment of simultaneous nostalgia and longing. It is here we discover he was once a pretty darn good football player, still holding onto the game, but in no position to do anything more than toss a ball for fun.
What follows next is an attempt to assemble a motley group of football players who are either has beens or a never was. There’s a SWAT team member (the most jacked we’ll ever see Jon Favreau), an inmate, two club bouncers, a sumo wrestler, a deaf tight end, a hard drinking Welsh soccer player, and a lightning fast convenience store clerk that can’t even catch a ball. Sure, the band of marginally athletic misfits don’t get along early and frequently get in their own way, but it’s nothing a bar fight and an impromptu Electric Slide to “I Will Survive” in a jail cell won’t fix.
Don’t look too hard, but the next rendition of Vince McMahon’s XFL will certainly have plenty of these types returning for another chance at everlasting football glory.
Oddly enough, I’ve made it this far without mentioning that Gene Hackman is also in this film as the coach of the wild bunch. This is four years from retirement-Hackman, and it’s a pretty docile performance for the most part. This isn’t a Popeye Doyle or Little Bill kind of role. It isn’t even a Mississippi Burning type of performance where you can tell there’s an incredible amount of inner turmoil masked by slick charisma. Hackman’s Jimmy McGinty, like Falco and the others, is just looking for another shot. Though, there is one great scene that really helps glue the movie together, showcasing its surprising depth for a cliché sports movie.
The “quicksand” scene brings the ensemble collectively in the locker room either before or after a practice. McGinty writes on the blackboard F E A R in big letters, asking the players to talk about theirs. The brilliance of the scene is how it starts off lighthearted with Orlando Jones confessing his fear of bees and spiders, which seems to stray from the point that McGinty is trying to make. But once Falco speaks up and says that his is quicksand – The room gets quiet and re-centers the discussion. It’s a nice understated sequence from Reeves where he equates the struggle of escaping quicksand to life in football. How a mistake can easily be followed by another, and another, and how the desperate action to reverse the trend can ultimately lead to being “in over your head” or translated better: out of football forever.
Every single actor nails their non-verbals, displaying how they can exactly identify with what Falco is saying. Everyone is afraid of going back to being, in their minds, nobodies. McGinty rounds out the scene by describing what all of them have that so many people wish they had: A second chance.
Any more than that and The Replacements would come off as being a film it just simply isn’t. The only extensions beyond the main plot are really reserved for Falco and his budding relationship with the head cheerleader, Annabelle. They get a tremendous scene towards the end of Act II – Needing everything to be in shambles in order to make Act III”s victory and reconciliation special.
The sneaky good soundtrack The Replacements has is also worth mentioning. The opening scene described previously carries Lit’s “Ziplock” to underscore the beginning of Falco’s day. The lyrics totally help you grasp where Falco is in his life, along with the instrumentals that capture the innocence of the 90’s and the pre-9/11 world.
Nearing the end of Act II there’s also a fantastic slow pull in on Falco, with Rolling Stone’s “Blinded by Rainbows” being heard aloud, he sits calmly by the water feeling at his lowest. BOOM! His replacement career seems over, while Washington’s previous MVP quarterback crosses the picket line. Now Falco conveys emotions of insecurity, wondering if his burgeoning relationship with Annabelle will work – Being that he’s back to “scraping crap off the bottom of other people’s toys.”
Reeves is immensely underrated as an actor who can communicate without speaking. Only in the last five years or so has he broken free of the ridicule received for speaking almost any line not in The Matrix or Speed and sounding like he’s still in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Selling the scene wonderfully as a man who has been gutted and cut off at the knees, you can’t help but feel sympathetic.
He finally started to overcome the mental blocks that held him back from becoming the great quarterback he was supposed to be… only to have it all end in an instant because his resume doesn’t stack up to the returning Eddie Martel. Of course being the anti-Ron Shelton sports movie The Replacements is, there’s still a big game to play at the end, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Falco will be a part of it. But it’s still a nice brief scene that anyone can identify with.
You know from the moment Pat Summerall, operating as the exposition of plot, says that Washington needs to win three of the four replacement games, the script will probably have them being 2-1 heading into that fourth crucial contest… likely coming down to a dramatic conclusion. The drama is especially hyped because the opposing Dallas team had all of its players cross the picket line, thus making them at full strength. Washington, on the other hand, has to win with its same roster of scrubs. This is another great callback to the actual 1987 NFL strike since the same was true of the Redskins playing the Cowboys in the final game of the season.
The way the game plays out in the movie is fine, and it’s for sure satisfying. However, the epilogue or lack of one is particularly brilliant. McGinty watches the team celebrate with handshakes and more Electric Slides with a bittersweet expression of glee and despair. The ride is over for all of them now, as players have officially crossed the picket line at season’s end.
We hear a monologue where McGinty romantically closes our experience with the team, saying that there weren’t any endorsement deals waiting for the replacement players. Just a locker to clean out and bus ride to catch. He closes with a fitting final line: “Most people dream of a second chance. These men lived it.” And that’s the movie.
After all of the clichés it leaned onto, it avoided probably the one that would have taken the story down a few pegs. No one, including Falco, presumably continues on with the Sentinels (which is highly unlikely if you go by how the Redskins kept some of their replacement players on the roster through the playoff run they had). We can make assumptions, but McGinty’s monologue leads us to believe that the four game stretch they had playing professional football was all they were going to get. And if that is so, we can only hope that maybe the experience will leave them in a better place once they catch that bus ride home. It really has this nice 48 Hours feel to it, where at the end Eddie Murphy goes back to jail and a fast one isn’t pulled where magically he’s done with the rest of his term.
What makes The Replacements such a watch no matter where you may come across it – Whether that be the middle of the day or a during a prime-time showing, is the fascination and lovable attributes around the team. Forget all the other stuff. There’s an argument that the mark of a good movie should be on how much you enjoy repeatedly dropping in on the world they’ve set up, as well as the characters its brings before you.
The Replacements may never top somebody’s list of even the best sports movies, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t facets of the film to treasure. My favorite being an important message they channel from the very beginning. That just because what you love might have seemingly passed you by, doesn’t mean you won’t necessarily catch up to it somewhere later in life.
By William Renken