By all rights this new football comedy, about a group of over-the-hill and never-was misfits who replace an NFL team roster during a players’ strike and fight their way, against apparently insurmountable odds, towards the playoffs, should be absolutely terrible. It’s so derivative and predictable that you can practically reconstruct the pitch meeting that caused the studio heads to greenlight it: “It’s sort of like ‘Varsity Blues,’ except we’ll have a whole team of rebels instead of just a quarterback. Or ‘Necessary Roughness,’ except that this time the long-in-the-tooth quarterback will be brought to the pros instead of college. We’ll play on the fans’ natural animosity against millionaire athletes who go on strike, and on their tendency to root for the funny underdogs. We’ll get Gene Hackman to play the tough-but-principled coach–you remember what a great job he did in ‘Hoosiers’–and we’ll put a hat on him to remind people of old Tom Landry. Maybe we can sign Keanu Reeves for the lead–remember, he already played an ex-quarterback in
‘Point Break,’ that movie where his old trick knee went out each time he had to chase Patrick Swayze. But this time his knee will be fine, he’ll just have emotional scars to overcome. And we’ll give him a bunch of zany teammates–like maybe that Welsh guy from ‘Notting Hill’ (he can be the place kicker), and a sumo wrestler, and some tough black dudes (maybe one straight out of jail), and maybe even a deaf receiver! And we’ll get a couple of real sportscasters to do funny commentary. You know, guys like John Madden and Pat Summerall. Their wrinkles would be hideously magnified on the big screen, of course, but maybe with enough makeup they’ll be okay. And we’ll toss in some romantic interest, a girl-next-door kind of cheerleader, say…”

One could continue this endlessly, and if you analyze the thing reasonably, “The Replacements” has virtually no surprises to it, except the big one–it’s actually an extremely enjoyable summer flick. You could hardly call it refined; it’s basically trashy fun, with plenty of obvious, dumb jokes and episodes of knee-jerk manipulation. But it revels in its trashiness, refusing to go the self-important, pretentious route that made Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” so insufferable. And in a summer of gross-out comedies, there’s something almost quaint about the low level of vulgarity on display; having some ex-gentlemen’s club lap-dancers replace the team cheerleaders and distract the opposing teams with some mildly suggestive moves is about as strong as things get in that department. At one point we’re even treated a good, old-fashioned barroom brawl, of the kind that seemed to have gone out with the last John Wayne movies. The breezy, confident tone of the picture puts you in such a good mood that you can forgive the almost-obligatory pop music references that are occasionally inserted; they have an air of lovable nostalgia about them, too.

The movie’s success has to be credited to both cast and crew. Howard Deutch has never been a particularly subtle director, but at least here he avoids the major missteps of most of his previous efforts, and scripter Vince McKewin has done better than his usual standard, too; the crisp editing of Bud Smith is a plus as well. Reeves segues nicely from the action-mode of “The Matrix,” being pleasantly restrained and even a bit touching as the sensitive quarterback. Hackman doesn’t do anything special as the hard-driving coach, but he brings his usual air of effortless authority to the part, and Brooke Langton is charmingly direct as the head cheerleader–a sweet girl, not one of those lap-dancers–who eventually links up with Reeves. And then there are the fellows who play the other replacement players–Orlando Jones as a jive-talking, slick-fingered receiver, Jon Favreau as a manic cop, Rhys Ifans as the chain-smoking place-kicker, Faizon Love and Michael “Bear” Taliferro as two burly gangsta types, Ace Yonamine as the sumo wrestler, Troy Winbush as a born-again preacher, David Denman as the deaf receiver, and Michael Jace as the not-quite-ex-con. Each of them is able to make a strong impression, but the movie keeps all of their characters sufficiently sketchy as not to wear out their welcome. And Jack Warden amazes by his continued mobility, if nothing else, as the crusty team owner.

Of course, there are flaws. The picture could easily do without the vomiting-on-the-field scene, and Hackman’s final “inspirational” voiceover speech is completely bogus. (One would like to think that both were intended as satirical swipes at sports-movie cliches, but that’s probably giving the makers too much credit.) Brett Cullen’s villain (the regular quarterback), moreover, is a standard-issue, snarling caricature whose motivations toward the close are entirely too controlled by the necessities of the plot. But in the final analysis “The Replacements” is one of those crowd-pleasing movies that while aiming low, hits the target. It may not be the cinematic equivalent of a touchdown, but it’s a good, solid field goal of a film; and given the heavy odds against it in terms of its formulaic story, that would be a long, long field goal from extremely poor position.