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4th and yawn

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'The Replacements' in a league of loser flicks


In this story:

If it looks familiar...

Stumblebums



(CNN) -- If Keanu Reeves had two more legs, he'd be a terrific coffee table.

He's not as stiff as usual in "The Replacements," a barely coherent comedy about a scrappy team of strike-breaking professional football players, but that's only because he spends much of his screen time outrunning enraged defensive linemen.

The game of football almost saves Reeves this time around, just as a runaway bus camouflaged his lack of acting ability in "Speed" (1994). Luckily -- for him as well as us -- the nuances of human relationships can be ignored during action sequences.

That shot that you always see in football movies, where the camera points straight down at a player who's grimacing in pain after being pulverized by some shoulder-pad-wearing monster, perfectly suits Reeves' gifts as a performer. He seldom seems connected to anything that's going on around him, and his anti-musical way with a piece of dialogue turns virtually everything he says into a question instead of a statement of purpose. "Just lie on your back and groan" is the safest piece of guidance a director could possibly give him.

If it looks familiar...

"The Replacements"' director is Howard Deutch, who established himself with several middling John Hughes-produced films in the 1980s. This movie is the football equivalent of "Major League" (1989), which, in turn, was the baseball equivalent of "Police Academy" (1984).

Deutch and screenwriter Vince McKewin never reveal information in ways that make you wonder about the inner workings of a particular character. Instead, each featured cast member is given one unsubtle, unamusing quirk. Then, in-between a barely there romance and several rounds of rote "you gotta have heart" sports-movie moralizing, the quirks are marched out in sequence.

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The fat guy always stuffs his face with food, the homeboys wave guns and intimidate people, and the crazy guy constantly tackles anyone who's wearing a red shirt. End of character development.

Reeves plays Shane Falco, a former hot-shot college quarterback who lost the Sugar Bowl so badly, he also lost his nerve. He earns the nickname "Footsteps" after blowing his big chance with the San Diego Chargers. Nowadays, Shane spends his time as a diver, scraping barnacles off fishing boats. But, as luck would have it, the league has gone on strike with only four games remaining.

Former Washington Sentinels coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman, picking up a quick paycheck) has been lured out of retirement to finish the season -- apparently, the original coach also went on strike, along with the cheerleading squad. McGinty is convinced, for no discernible reason, that Falco is the only person who can lead a rag-tag team of miscreants to the play-offs.

Stumblebums

The opening scenes, during which the players are introduced to us by Hackman as if they fell out of the sky wearing football uniforms, are borderline inept. God only knows how McGinty would recognize these guys' hidden abilities, or even how he managed to meet them in the first place.

Inner-city nobody Clifford Franklin (Orlando Jones) is really fast, but can't catch a ball to save his life. Daniel Bateman (John Favreau) is the wide-eyed lunatic who clobbers people even when he's celebrating a touchdown. Nigel Gruff (Rhys Ifans) is the chain-smoking, pint-guzzling British place-kicker. There's also an egg-loving dumo wrestler, a couple of gun-toting bodyguards and a dangerous convict who's been allowed by the governor to temporarily leave prison and join the team.

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The love interest is Brooke Langton as Annabelle Farrell, the cheerleading equivalent of Coach McGinty. Incredibly, when Annabelle has to slap together a new team of cheerleaders, obese women with no dancing ability suddenly think they can make the squad. Boy, that's a hoot.

Shane starts falling in love with Annabelle three seconds after he sets eyes on her. You can't really blame him. Langton is a likable, first-class looker, and she has a sexy, slightly hoarse voice. She might even be able to act, but there's no reason to try when you're trapped in something this obvious; a great body and an elegant kissing technique are all you really need.

It's possible to deal with this kind of material in a broad, explicitly commercial manner while still retaining the bare bones of a serviceable movie-going experience. George Roy Hill's "Slap Shot" (1977) is a profane, sometimes over-the-top hockey picture that gracefully interweaves slapstick with actual dramatic tension.

The so-called tension in "The Replacements" centers around whether Reeves will be able to rise above his inherent flaws, but that's the source of tension in every one of his movies. Is anybody really surprised anymore when he fumbles the ball or over-throws a receiver?

The violence in "The Replacements" is quite mild. There's some profanity, but no nudity or in-your-face sex. Fans of reality might want to opt for something more reasonable, like a Bugs Bunny picture. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes.

Warner Bros. Pictures, which produced the film, is owned by Time Warner, which is the parent company of CNN.



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