When I first envisioned this column, I quickly jotted down what I thought my top 10 might be. Actually, it was 11 -- counting is not my strong suit. I originally had The Program penciled into this spot, with Varsity Blues at number 11. I remembered enjoying both when they first came out, while I remember The Replacements as being, well, not very memorable. But while I had re-watched both The Program and Varsity Blues several times over the years, it had been awhile since I’d seen either. As it turns out, they hadn’t aged all that well.
I briefly considered having a tie at 10 with either movie — or even both — but I didn’t want to cop out. Besides, Varsity Blues had enough misogynistic humor to eliminate it from consideration. And while The Program is undeniably entertaining and filled with memorable scenes (“Place at the table!”), I had to face facts and admit that to my own surprise at this point I just enjoyed The Replacements more.
Also, while all the movies in my top 10 have laughs in them, this is the only one which could be considered a comedy. I love comedies, and I love sports movies, but it’s really hard to pull off both at once while maintaining some semblance of reality. This movie, unlike several listed at the end of the last installment, barely cleared that bar. That’s a big reason why it rose above the competition to sneak in as the token comedy on this list.
The best thing about The Replacements is that it knows exactly what it is. It’s not trying to be a great football movie, it’s trying to be a fun football movie. Mission: Accomplished. Good laughs, good music, good vibes. It’s too silly by half in several spots, and some of the comedy hasn’t aged particularly well since the cheesy, over the top style of the late 90’s/early aughts, but you can’t stay mad at it. Or at least I can’t.
There are better movies with football in them that didn’t make the list. Heaven Can Wait, for instance. But that’s a rom-com masquerading as a football movie. You can juggle both genres — and most football movies do, including this one — but you can’t let the romance smother the football. In The Replacements, football takes the lead and there’s plenty of game action.
Let’s break it all down. But first, the trailer:
Keanu Reeves is great as down-on-his-luck former Ohio State star QB Shane Falco. Reeves is always likable, and the film bolsters that by giving Falco a sympathetic backstory: He fell apart in a Sugar Bowl loss to end his college career, throwing five interceptions, and never recovered. They probably didn’t need to hit that point as hard as they do, referencing the Sugar Bowl repeatedly, just to makes sure they hammered it through our thick skulls. But being traumatized by that performance makes Falco relatable and easy to root for, so it’s easy to forgive. And Reeves sells that persona well.
Reeves also looks the part of a QB, which may be either the cause or the effect of him playing Johnny Utah in Point Break. The fact both Falco and Utah have backstories which include them being standout Ohio State QB’s who had their careers ruined in New Years Day bowl games (Utah blew out his knee in the Rose Bowl) have led to many comparisons of the two fictional QB’s. Google their names and you’ll find no less than seven (plus one conspiracy theory) on the first page alone. People are really into the Utah/Falco thing.
Just wait until the next John Wick film, when we learn he was also an Ohio State QB.
Key role players
Like any good QB, Reeves owes much of his success to a solid supporting cast.
In what will be a running theme throughout this list, it was a nice touch casting well-known sports movie veterans Gene Hackman and Jack Warden. Hackman was of course the legendary Norman Dale in Hoosiers, and Warden portrayed legendary Bears owner/head coach George Halas in Brian’s Song and Rams assistant coach Max Corkle in the aforementioned Heaven Can Wait. Hackman is disgraced coach Jimmy McGinty, who lost his previous job due to a feud with his QB. Warner is Washington Sentinels owner Edward O’Neil, who re-hires McGinty to coach a team of replacements.
The team is also filled with many solid comedic actors you’ve seen quite a bit since, led by Jon Favreau as Daniel Bateman, a SWAT team officer and former walk-on LB at Michigan State, who won a purple heart for losing a kidney in the Gulf War.
There’s a saying in screenwriting that a protagonist can only be as strong as the antagonism he faces. In sports movies, that antagonism is supplied, at least in part, by the on-field opponent, but something else is often required. In this case, Falco faces several forces -- chief among them: his self-doubt and demons from his past failures. But it helps quite a bit if antagonism can be personified -- not just a force, but a person who fights to keep the hero from what they want. For that, The Replacements gives us Eddie Martel (as portrayed by Brett Cullen), the two-time Super Bowl champ Falco is replacing at QB.
To set up that Martel is all about the cash and not winning, they introduce him sliding to protect himself when he could’ve scored a TD, and then complaining about his $5 million contract after the game.
And in case that didn’t make you hate him, Martel goes out of his way to make things difficult for Falco, hazing him on his first day at work.
It all helps to set up Falco not as an opportunistic scab, but as an underdog with his heart in the right place -- a counterpoint to the selfish, spoiled prima donna athlete.
Rookie of the year
David Denman is solid as deaf TE Brian Murphy in his first-ever movie role. His performance is solid and he looks the part at 6’4” with a beefy build. Though he’s done several movies in the 18 years since, he’s still mainly a TV actor, best known as Pam’s fiancee Roy in The Office.
There’s no real need for NFL player cameos in a movie about replacement players, but they did manage to wrangle Pat Summerall and John Madden as the announcers, which added a lot in credibility if not a lot of comedy.
Calling the game play “realistic” would be kind, but I’m doing it anyway -- with an asterisk: They have a lower bar to cross being that we’re watching replacement players, and not actual pros. It’s much easier to buy the football action when we’re told from the start these guys were working regular jobs a couple of weeks earlier.
The “Falco scores!” sequence narrated by Summerall and Madden kind of encapsulates the movie -- a cheesy, rom-com meets football movie unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve:
- Usually the love stories in these movies are the worst parts, the kind you fast-forward through. But because of inventive scenes like that one, and having a female lead who loves and knows football, it blends nicely with the story. That allows Falco’s return to the team also be a return to her without seeming forced.
- The storyline in which the team, desperate for cheerleaders -- because, as we all know, the regular cheerleaders are represented by the same union as the players -- end up having to employ a bunch of strippers.
- This quality inspirational speech delivered by Falco in the huddle:
- The cheesy, heart-on-its-sleeve ending, which is exactly what this movie deserved:
Both involve Orlando Jones, which isn’t really fair since he’s pretty good in the movie:
- When McGinty chooses him for the team despite the fact he’s a WR who can’t catch, and tasks his coaches with helping him become a quality receiver, I had flashbacks of Trent Baalke drafting A.J. Jenkins, undoing years of psychotherapy.
- The song and dance interlude where Jones leads his teammates in a jailhouse rendition of “I Will Survive.” It’s not ridiculously egregious as far as song and dance interludes go, but I’m just not a fan of song and dance interludes.
The most realistic thing about this movie might be its seemingly unrealistic premise -- nobodies pulled off the street to play for contending teams in pro football -- because it happened. Though the team and league is fictional, the story is clearly based on the 1987 NFL players strike. And though the Sentinels are made up, they are obviously meant to represent another Washington franchise.
The Sentinels need three wins to make the playoffs (never mind how they can know that for sure with four games still to play), while in reality Washington won all three replacement games on their way to win Super Bowl XXII. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Hackman ended up doing the voiceover for the America’s Game about their 1987 season.
In 2017, ESPN aired a 30 For 30 on that replacement team, “Year of the Scab,” which detailed how Washington’s replacement team even won their last game against a Dallas Cowboy team filled with actual NFL players who had crossed the picket line. That how the last game in the movie plays out as well (SPOILER ALERT). That documentary led to an outcry for the players to get Super Bowl rings. A year later, the team honored those players, who finally got their rings — more than 30 years later.
There’s even a scene in the movie where the striking Sentinel players attack a bus carrying the replacement players on its way into the stadium, mimicking incidents in Washington in 1987 when DL Darryl Grant smashed the window of the replacements players bus with his fist, and Houston, where replacement players were pelted with eggs.
Also, Michael Jace plays Earl Wilkinson (aka “Ray Smith”), a convict who shows up in an orange prison jumpsuit and shackles to play for Washington on a prison work furlough, which is exactly what reportedly happened with QB Tony Robinson in 1987. In a chilling life-imitating-art-imitating-life twist, the actor is now serving a life sentence in prison for killing his wife.
On that upbeat note...
McGinty: “You know what separates winners from losers, kid?”
Falco: “The score.”
If you think this was an upset, wait until you see what comes in at No. 9. A hint: It stars two people better known for other football roles.