"MAJOR LEAGUE" with shoulder pads, "The Replacements" is about as formulaic as a movie can be and still claim to be "inspired" by something--in this case the 1987 NFL players strike and the team of valiant scabs who led our Redskins to a series of underdog victories. But its real antecedent is not football history but the history of cinema: It's a rehash of every film from "The Seven Samurai" to "The Mighty Ducks" that tells the story of a band of misfits who overcome adversity, infighting and incompetence to a) whip the bad guys, b) buck the system, c) surmount their own inferiority complex or d) all of the above.
Keanu "Whoa" Reeves is Shane Falco (catch the Alan Ladd reference?), a failed college football hero living down a disastrous performance in the 1996 Sugar Bowl in a ratty little houseboat, where he makes a living scraping barnacles off the hulls of rich folks' yachts. Since the ignominious choking he hasn't picked up a football except to toss a rusted metal one broken off a trophy he finds floating at the bottom of the harbor.
Set in a mythical football league filled with ugly uniform color combinations that are not found in nature (thanks to the threat of legal action by NFL lawyers), "The Replacements" wastes no time cutting to the chase. After a midseason walkout by the professional football players union, the Washington Sentinels bring gruff but lovable coaching legend Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) out of retirement to quickly round up a team of scab players to take the team to the playoffs. Although set in D.C., the film was shot at Baltimore's PSINet Stadium, here redubbed "Nextel Stadium" in honor of another corporate giant too cheap to sponsor a real arena.
Shane, the Man With the Tarnished Golden Arm, is tapped, naturally, for the quarterback slot, Messiah to a bunch of gridiron wannabes with nothing better to do than wait for fate to come knocking. In the lineup: a 500-pound sumo wrestler (Ace Yonamine); a fleet-footed but inept convenience store clerk (Orlando Jones); a washed-up Welsh soccer star (Rhys Ifans); a Bible-thumper (Troy Winbush); two gangsta rap body guards (Faizon Love and Michael "Bear" Taliferro); a hearing-impaired receiver (David Denman); an ex-con (Michael Jace); and a sadistic SWAT team cop (the frighteningly beefy Jon Favreau).
It's not so much character-based as shtick-driven comedy: The sumo wrestler barfs up a dozen barely digested eggs; the strippers hired to fill in as cheerleaders devise smutty, "Showgirls"-inspired dance routines. But when not indulging in least-common-denominator humor, the film attempts to tap into our not-so-secret resentment of corporate sport greedheads and the overpriced divas on steroids with whom we have a love/hate relationship. After an early, heart-rending defeat of the underdogs (clad in blindingly tacky red, white and blue), we're treated to a perversely satisfying scene in which Shane and Co. beat the living crud out of their off-field tormentors, the spoiled whiners they're replacing led by a smirking Brett Cullen.
Don't forget: Just like real football, the Howard Deutch-directed film is about grunting and head-butting, not acting and speechifying. At one point, trying to motivate his team to victory, Shane soliloquizes, "I wish I could say something classy and inspirational, but . . . " (But? But what, Keanu? Cat got your tongue?) Even John Madden and Pat Summerall, gamely playing themselves, look like they're having trouble not laughing, and it isn't because the movie is sooooo darn funny.
The moral, as scripted by Vince ("Fly Away Home") McKewin, is this: Teamwork is more important than individual glory and--chestnut of chestnuts--you've got to have heart. Admittedly, heart is the one thing the film has going for it, although its heart is of the flat, foil-wrapped kind, filled with stuff that rots your mind if not your teeth. Even the subplot of Shane's wooing of Annabelle (Brooke Langton), the gamine barkeep who moonlights as the captain of the cheerleading squad, feels about as fake as Astroturf.
Teamwork? Second chances? Boy gets girl? What's so bad about all that, you might ask?
Okay, okay, "The Replacements" gets points for old-fashioned values and for making villains out of a bunch of millionaires in cleats. But that's a field goal, not a touchdown.
THE REPLACEMENTS (PG-13, 114 minutes) -- Contains profanity, football violence, a barroom brawl, lewd cheerleading and egg vomit. Area Theaters.