Sportsflicks: Chicks Dig Scabs, Or "The Replacements"

Finally a football movie that combines slobs-versus-snobs approach with weaponized, Jerry Richardson-grade anti-union sentiment.
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For all but the most defective fans, it’s easy to get behind a bunch of ragtag misfits and second stringers playing over their heads, especially if they rally around Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” en route a championship run. Easy, but not guaranteed. The Replacements, which is maybe the strangest football movie ever made—not the most racist or most violent, but maybe the most perverse—dares to make you question everything you ever believed a sports movie could do, by devolving into an alarmingly well-orchestrated litany of anti-labor sentiment and sophomoric humor.

The Replacements wasn’t that much of a success in the box office, which is somewhat surprising in retrospect. The year was 2000, and Keanu Reeves was hot off The Matrix; Gene Hackman, who would retire just four years later, had (and doubtless still has) the ability to make any film worth watching. The film’s director, Howard Deutch, is best known for movies you think John Hughes directed, such as Pretty In Pink and Some Kind Of Wonderful, and later settled down to direct episodic television and lesser sequels of hit comedies. A good chunk of the film’s $50 million budget seems to have gone towards paying its two biggest stars and licensing fees for various overplayed stadium rock and turn-of-the-millennium songs that have not aged well. That said, this is a movie about American football, at a time when playing up foreign stereotypes seemed a better bet than pleasing international audiences in a disingenuous/shrewd money grab.

 

Keanu Reeves is the Tony Danza of A-list movie stars; you don’t expect him to do Shakespeare, and when he does do Shakespeare you kind of cringe. His Shane Falco character is easily the second-greatest quarterback who looks exactly like Keanu Reeves to attend Ohio State; Falco is also the second-greatest quarterback with the letters F, A, L, C and O in his surname to ever grace what is now M&T Bank Stadium. Gene Hackman has played coaches and athletes of various degrees of avuncularity in the past; it is no surprise that between The Replacements and Night Moves, the one where Gene sees everyone die around him in an orgy of nihilistic chaos is the funnier of the two. Orlando Jones does what he can as wide receiver Clifford Franklin, but his character lacks the self-awareness that prevents his Freddie Mitchell-esque persona from approaching Freddie Mitchell-grade levels of hilarity. Jack Warden is a nice get as always, but he’s more Luke Fuchs in Used Cars here than Roy L. Fuchs in Used Cars, and The Replacements suffers for his lack of manic energy.

Three minutes in, the (unionized) pro players have already been smeared as selfish, whiny and greedy. We know who the bad guy is, because he slides into the red zone to prevent injury and complains about making $6 million a year. That hissably concussion-averse villain Eddie Martel gets his comeuppance at the end of the movie, but it rings hollow, especially because the guy playing him is so old we kinda wish he was our dickish but loving stepfather.  It is the “Joe Don Baker In The Natural” school of acting, where if you’re old and playing a professional athlete, your rival must be even older. If I were union representative Keith David, I would’ve told his guys to shut the hell up in general, but even this misbegotten film’s version of DeMaurice Smith is more authoritative and appealing than the real thing. Washington Sentinels owner Jack Warden is far from the most honest person on earth, but his hypocrisy is treated more as a lovable coot’s foible than as a rich bastard’s attempt to fuck over the very people who made him so wealthy in the first place. Just try and imagine a Daniel Snyder-esque owner pulling off that Jack Kent Cooke stuff. Just try and imagine a movie that would even attempt this.

This is that movie. The Replacements punts away a really good premise in favor of a lower-middlebrow “scabs versus snobs” comedy. While previous NFL labor strikes did primarily result in higher wages and a greater sharing of revenues, the 1987 strike was predicated on ending the “Rozelle rule,” in which free-agent compensation between teams effectively blocked pure free agency. Using replacement players was a strategic effort to undermine the players, and the mix of replacements and picket-crossers—whose numbers included Joe Montana and many of the Dallas Cowboys—was a means to an end. The strike ended so favorably towards the owners that the NFLPA decertified for two years. Modern free agency in the National Football League did not begin until 1993, giving us five more seasons of Reggie White in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey and not much else that anyone but a NFL owner could call a positive.

Both the striking and replacement members of the 1987 Washington [Expletive Deleteds] made the best of a bad situation. The Super Bowl champions were the only team not to have a single player cross the picket line; the quarterback controversy between Doug Williams and Jay Schroeder existed both before and after the strike. Many teams waited until the last second to build a replacement roster, while the R******s were so deep in some places, they had to make cuts. Players from the recently defunct USFL, whose presence acted as a de facto form of free agency in its three years of existence—and which had helped Doug Williams escape a professional and personal nightmare with the Buccaneers—made up much of the NFL’s replacement pool, along with CFL players, Sean Payton, undrafted/cut players, and the odd Death Row Records executive.

Many of The Replacements’ problems have to do with when it was made, and the strides that most fans have made in their understanding of professional football. In terms that I’m sure every reader will understand: the internet and fantasy football are like that learning machine Terl puts Johnny Goodboy Tyler into in Battlefield Earth—the NFL has turned us man-animals into intelligent fans, putting in jeopardy the NFL’s attempt at leaving this prison planet with all the gold in Fort Knox. What I’m trying to communicate is that a movie based on the works on L. Ron Hubbard is much more watchable and more relevant to professional football as we understand it today than The Replacements is.

In the year 2000, when both Battlefield Earth and The Replacements were released, no one quite understood just how viciously Nixonian the National Football League would reveal itself to be, nor did we fully understand (or admit) how dangerous football inherently and unavoidably was. As a result, someone watching The Replacements in 2015 finds a film that plays like a single, scorching 118-minute long hot take, complete with hilarious jokes involving concussed players and linemen tackling women.

It took Mad Max: Fury Road the same 118-minute running time to correct what The Replacements posited 15 years ago, and Fury Road has much better stunts. The sheer use of objectifying women as an in-game strategy makes me feel as nauseous as the Japanese sumo lineman after he ate a bunch of hard-boiled eggs. Not every fan is Dave Zirin, obviously, but in an age in which lockouts are much more likely than players’ strikes, and when we are aware of the small window within which (some extremely lucky) players can indeed make $6 million a year (unguaranteed) so much of this movie rings not just false but willfully false. This is a movie in which a striking NFL quarterback trips up a scab with wire and snickers like Muttley after doing so, and somehow The Replacements feels even faker than that.

Maybe The Replacements was never supposed to be about pro football in the first place. It is more about...anyway, that’s tough to say, but internal consistency is an issue. It’s understandable that a team might run out and procure replacement players during a players’ strike, but why in the hell wouldn’t most of the (extremely not-unionized, shockingly) cheerleaders stay on with the team? And why would any owner a their head coach so deep into a playoff run? When the Seahawks fired Jack Patera in the middle of the 1982 strike, it was two games into the season, and the move was made after he cut the team’s NFLPA representative. Even replacement football teams have several strings of quarterbacks, and yet when management brings Eddie Martel back into the fold, Coach McGinty is resigned to having Shane Falco return to his houseboat in Washington D.C.’s famous Inner Harbor—most of the film was shot in Baltimore, though a “road game” was indeed filmed in beautiful Raljon, Maryland.

Over the last few years my Sportsflicksian duties have meant that I’ve written a lot about American football-themed comedies. When Second String, a freaking made-for-TNT movie in which Gil Bellows leads Jon Voight’s Bills to a Super Bowl runs laps around you—hell, when Division III: Football’s Finest is not the worst football themed movie admitted murderer Michael Jace ever made—you have something special in its awfulness. The Replacementsis that movie.

What brief but genuine moments of humor and humanity there are to be found in The Replacements are undermined by its weirdly virulent anti-labor politics and steadfast belief that you can do anything if you just stop feeling sorry for yourself. It might be too much to expect a sports movie to be anything but one-dimensional, or even vaguely politically enlightened. It shouldn’t be too much to expect it not to insult your intelligence. That’s more than The Replacements is able, or willing, to do.


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