- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

''The Replacements" is easy to pigeonhole as a kind of discounted variation on Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday," which boasted more stellar attractions and needed a near-epic length to gratify a humorous crush on the National Football League.

Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman, cast as emergency quarterback and coach, respectively, of a fictional team called the Washington Sentinels, who make their home in what clearly is Baltimore, suffice as marquee names in this modest but also diverting rabble-rouser, content to formulate its laughs and hokum within a normal running time.

In some respects, "The Replacements" is the more playful NFL suitor and cutup. It scores a broadcast-booth coup by recruiting John Madden and Pat Summerall to play themselves while delivering bemused comic commentary on five Sentinels games, all cliffhangers, that conclude a regular season disrupted by a players strike.

Though it wanders far away from historic authenticity, the pretext was suggested by the strike-shortened but entertaining NFL season of 1987, a triumph for the Redskins, who used a replacement team with optimum resourcefulness.

Mr. Madden gets a definitive interlude demonstrating his play-diagramming gizmo. A cleverly prolonged and beguiling love scene between Mr. Reeves and Brooke Langton, an irresistible romantic adornment as heroine Annabelle Farrell, the incongruously classy cheerleader in a squad liberally salted with stripper bimbos, is enhanced by shifting a Madden-Summerall commentary out of context.

To the extent that the esteemed broadcasters alone can give a stamp of approval to the Sentinels, they provide an enviable endorsement.

Jack Warden, not a bad choice to evoke the late Jack Kent Cooke, has a small role as Sentinels owner Edward O'Neil. Faced with both a strike and a lackluster season, he turns to a retired but savvy coach, Mr. Hackman as Jimmy McGinty, to salvage the remaining regular-season games with replacement players.

The plot depends on demonizing a smug star quarterback, Brett Cullen as Eddie Martel, and championing a demoralized pariah, Mr. Reeves as a former All-American named Shane Falco who never recovered from a calamitous Sugar Bowl game that left him with the nickname "Footsteps."

Falco is discovered living in a houseboat in the Inner Harbor, where he broods in obscurity and supposedly ekes out a living by scraping hulls.

McGinty takes a low-key, let's-have-the-time-of-our-lives approach to his motley new squad, which is contrived to blend inspirational diversity with slapstick vulgarity.

Orlando Jones is a fleet and starstruck receiver named Clifford Franklin, whose peerless speed is neutralized by bad hands. A talented defensive back, Michael Jace as Earl Wilkinson, must be temporarily liberated from the Maryland prison system.

A demon linebacker, Jon Favreau as Daniel Bateman, is on leave from the Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team. The place kicker, Rhys Ifans (Hugh Grant's scruffy pal in "Notting Hill") as Nigel Gruff, is a chain-smoking Welshman. The beefy offensive line is diversified by a former sumo wrestler, Ace Yonamine as Jumbo Fumiko, and anchored by a pair of brothers, Michael "Bear" Taliferro as Andre and Faizon Love as Jamal Jackson, who drifted into work as bodyguards after being cut by pro teams.

The filmmakers earn some elasticity with mere rules and probability at the outset by showing the team in such a disorganized state that a pair of delay-of-game penalties are called before the opening kickoff of the first replacement game.

While failing to make the most of open auditions for the cheerleading squad, curiously supervised by Miss Langton, whose character owns a family bar, the filmmakers rebound with a terrific smutty brainstorm in game situations: the emergence of the squad as a distracting 12th man, thanks to sideline dirty dancing that leaves opposing teams in a lecherous daze.

A decisive bonding interlude is attributed to an evening spent in jail after a barroom brawl with mocking strikers.

During the course of the evening, the new Sentinels improvise a dance number to "I Will Survive." The same tune was borrowed last week as a fitting anthem for the barmaids of "Coyote Ugly."

The surprising thing in retrospect is that "I Will Survive" wasn't adopted as the theme song for "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." Maybe some governing board could simply declare it the national anthem for plucky athletes and entertainers.

Two out of four stars

TITLE: "The Replacements"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Howard Deutch

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

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