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Gene Hackman, Keanu Reeves and Howard Deutch score some laughs with "The Replacements."

Got Game?

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By their very nature, sports movies are crowd-pleasing tales of underdogs overcoming huge obstacles (usually bigger teams with better equipment) to take home the trophy, title or bragging rights. Even the most ineffectual ones can get viewers cheering when the inevitable final shot, swing, kick or whistle blows. "The Replacements," a comic look at the 1987 NFL season when pro teams filled their rosters with also-rans because of a players' strike, offers nary a variation on those tried 'n' true themes.

Frankly formulaic, this late-summer release seems more of a marketing strategy than full-blown entertainment. Targeted for the pre-season, this feel-good sports fantasy floats on an amiable sense of unreality. While I am certainly no gridiron expert, Vince McKewin's by-the-numbers script occasionally had me wondering if the guy knew much about the game. Dallas playing an "away" game on Thanksgiving? John Madden and Pat Summerall covering the same team four consecutive Sundays? The football season ending on Turkey Day?

Very early in "The Replacements," the makers let us know where their sympathies lie: Striking players are just "millionaires" who've lost their love and passion for the sport. But for guys like Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves looking like a latter-day Joe Namath), a once-promising college quarterback whose spirit was broken by a devastating Sugar Bowl loss, it's all about the game. When veteran coach Jimmy McGinty (an uninspired Gene Hackman) is plucked from retirement to assemble and coach a replacement team for the Washington, uh, Sentinels, he knows he needs Falco.

Don't even ask how McGinty knows about Falco even though the old coach has been out of the game for years, it's just one of those plot points you have to accept in this kind of movie. You also have to be willing to accept that the other pickup players for the Sentinels will be a funny, demographically diverse group of talented oddballs. Jon Favreau ("Swingers") munches on scenery as if this were his last chance to be in a movie. He's the team's psychotic cop turned linebacker. Rhys Ifans (the funny, bad-teeth flat-mate from "Notting Hill") scores better as a chain-smoking Welsh footballer who turns out to be a heck of a kicker.

Other teammates include Michael Jace as the requisite convict on temporary leave from state prison; Michael Taliferro and Faizon Love as two music-industry bodyguards who want their chance on the field; Orlando Jones happens to be a lightning-fast sprinter who couldn't catch a ball if his hands were covered in super glue; and David Denman, the team's tight end, is deaf. Oh, and then there's Ace Yonamine, a sumo wrestler with the unfortunate habit of overeating before a big game. (Yes, you know where that's going!)

Head cheerleader Annabelle Farrell (Brooke Langton) has her hands full on the sidelines trying to assemble a new squad of limber lovelies — apparently the regular gals went out on strike, too. After some hilarious tryouts, she settles for a crew of eager-to-please local lap dancers. (Yes, you can also see where this is going!)

Riddled with clichés and sports-saga chestnuts, "The Replacements" does have a breezy kind of appeal. Whenever the dialogue or plot starts to run out of steam, director Howard Deutch tosses in either a funny line or a sports sequence. This is not the type of movie where you're afraid you'll miss something vital should you need to refill that popcorn tub. Indeed, everything in "The Replacements" is so predictable and every character so stereotypical, you can sneak in several trips to the concession stand.

Folks who have never understood the appeal of Reeves' vacuous looks and acting won't gain any insight here. This could be "Bill & Ted's Excellent Football Adventure" for that matter. Although Hackman could have phoned his lines in, he doesn't. While this certainly isn't anywhere near his performance as the underdog coach in "Hoosiers," Hackman does succeed in taking the paper-thin character of McGinty and making him believable. Predictable yet funny, "The Replacements" is winning summer entertainment.

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