Sports movies are a little like musicals or porn: if you are partial to the genre, almost any example, fair or great, will do the trick.
Howard Deutch's The Replacements is not in the league of Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday (1999), but this scarcely matters. The film goes through its motions enjoyably enough.
Shane (Keanu Reeves) is a loner who scrapes the bottoms of boats for a living. One day, under the water, he finds a rusty old football trophy – his own. Just as he is remembering his past glories, coach Jimmy (Gene Hackman) hits the streets in search of replacement players to carry the season during an industrial dispute.
Deutch cut his teeth as a director under the tutelage of teen-movie maestro John Hughes. So it comes as little surprise that The Replacements skates breezily over the politics of its premise. The players on strike are presented as rich, egomaniacal and nasty; the scabs constitute the true proletariat, eccentric, hard-working and honourable.
Deutch's films are less slick than those of his mentor. As in Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), he brings a touch of homeliness and grit to any genre he handles. Placed alongside the grandly orchestrated spectacle of Any Given Sunday, the action in The Replacements (particularly on the field) is endearingly modest, non-violent and jolly; even the pistol-wielding gangstas on the team are loveable pussy cats.
The Australian censorship rating is puzzlingly harsh, given that the film goes out of its way to avoid any sexual content – to the point of making it strategically unclear whether the flamboyant player who likes to shake his booty to "I Will Survive" is gay or not. The heat missing from Shane's budding romance with Annabelle (Brooke Langton) is discreetly displaced onto the disconcerting dance moves offered by an amusing bunch of cheerleaders.
It has become common practice for Australian reviewers to complain about films showcasing unfamiliar or "incomprehensible" American sports being foisted on the local audience. But no one need understand all the plays on the field in order to enjoy this typical tale of dignity refound against the odds, centred touchingly on the evident rapport between Reeves and Hackman.
MORE Deutch: Article 99
© Adrian Martin November 2000