For a moment I thought I was back in The Matrix. Truly. Keanu Reeves, playing washed-up quarterback Shane Falco, sits in the Washington Sentinels locker room and deconstructs the nature of fear for his teammates. It's like seeing Neo in a red football jersey — no shades, no leather — but full of enlightenment about how fear can screw up a game. "That's some deep shit, man," says a linebacker, speaking for a ragtag team of scabs that really needs a savior. Maybe Shane is "the One." Maybe this slice of sports slapstick about a bunch of has-beens recruited to play pro ball when the regulars go on strike is just another virtual-reality test concocted by humanoid machines. Listen, there is no such team as the Washington Sentinels.
Sorry, Matrix freaks, but The Replacements is just what it says it is: a comedy, loosely based on the 1987 NFL strike that forced team owners to bring in replacement players to save the business. Director Howard Deutch (Grumpier Old Men) could have hired The Matrix's Hong Kong stunt expert Yuen Wo Ping to put the Sentinels on wires for a kick-ass final game, but he didn't. Keanu could have channeled Neo's balls-to-the-wall coolness to play Shane, but he doesn't. The goal here is mindless summer fun about some jerk-off jocks who defy expectations and get to enter the playoffs. Is that so wrong?
It's a kick to watch Keanu acting silly on purpose, as opposed to the vacant-stare Reeves performances that made Little Buddha, Johnny Mnemonic and The Devil's Advocate unintentionally hilarious. Shane, a former all-American with a rep for choking in the clutch, is reduced to doing scut work on boats at a Washington, D.C., marina. That's when coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman), tempted out of retirement by Sentinels owner Ed O'Neil (Jack Warden), taps Shane for a second chance. I don't want to suggest that screenwriter Vince McKewin (Operation Dumbo Drop) has crafted memorable lines. The great Hackman is given dialogue from show tunes. "You gotta have heart," Jimmy tells his team, "miles and miles and miles of heart."
What The Replacements does have is energy. The team Jimmy puts together may be losers, but they're goofy ones. Rhys Ifans, Hugh Grant's ass-scratching Welsh flat-mate in Notting Hill, kicks a field goal while smoking furiously. Jon Favreau, terrific playing himself on The Sopranos, is an ex-L.A. cop with rage issues. Faizon Love and Michael "Bear" Taliferro play former bodyguards. When Eddie Martel (Brett Cullen), the regular team quarterback, overturns Shane's pickup truck, they shoot Eddie's fancy foreign car to death as payback. Other teammates include a Japanese sumo wrestler (Ace Yonamine), a deaf linebacker (David Denman), a born-again Christian (Troy Winbush) and a sprung convict (Michael Jace). Orlando Jones is a hoot as a receiver so butterfingered that Jimmy covers his hands with glue ("Hey, coach, I feel like I just jacked off an elephant").
It's the gross humor, and not Shane's kissy-poo with bar owner Annabelle (sweet, sexy Brooke Langton), that will make The Replacements box-office compatible this summer. And score one for the Sentinel cheerleaders — they're lap dancers. You've never seen a halftime like this, even in Dallas. Like an eager-to-please puppy, The Replacements will do anything for a laugh. Veteran NFL sportscasters John Madden and Pat Summerall even show up as themselves to call the nutso plays. All that's missing is football's new mouth Dennis Miller: "Hey, Keanu — you, a quarterback? You kidding me, babe?" Now that would be better than The Matrix.