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by: Michael Dequina

Going into The Replacements, one knows exactly what one is going to see: a team of misfit football players comically getting their act together for the big game, during which they enjoy their moment of glory. And, indeed, the only real surprise of this comedy is just how content director Howard Deutch and writer Vince McKewin is with strictly following expectations, not serving up one single deviation from the given formula.

It's for that very reason that I wouldn't be surprised if The Replacements became a substantial late-summer hit; everything about it is calibrated just so for broad audience "satisfaction." Consider, first, the characters that make up the replacement squad for the fictional Washington Sentinels. There is Daniel Bateman (Jon Favreau), a violence-prone cop who speaks in a growl--leading to lots of easy physical gags involving his penchant for tackling. There's Clifford Franklin (Orlando Jones), the wisecracking black guy. Not to be outdone are the big, tough black guys (Faizon Love and Michael "Bear" Taliferro), who butt heads with the token Asian (Ace Yonamine)--who also happens to be as large as a sumo wrestler, paving the way for the obvious fat jokes. Rhys Ifans' placekicker Nigel is basically a replay of his popular character in Notting Hill, a scruffy, layabout Welshman. But with all these caricatures, there has to be a straight man, and here he's in the form of a cliché--quarterback Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), who cannot quite live down choking in the crucial final moments of his last college game.

Will Coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) whip these boys into shape? Can Shane find redemption and deliver when put in a similarly nailbiting situation? Will there be a crucial injury before the last game is through? Should there be any doubt? But before The Replacements reaches its foregone conclusion, there is the expected stream of hijinks. The replacements get into a bar brawl with the on-strike players. Head cheerleader Annabelle (the warm and winning Brooke Langton, who deserves more big-league roles) must preside over a pep squad trained in a different type of spirit-raising--lapdancing. Clifford leads his teammates in a rousing electric slide to "I Will Survive." Yes, these set pieces are engaging enough to hold the attention. What they aren't, however, are original or distinctive enough to hold long in the memory.

Which is The Replacements's ultimate failing--the film is competently done (though a few of the actors, namely Favreau, are constricted by one-note roles), but there's nothing to distinguish it from the pack of sports comedies and feel-good underdog stories. Perhaps that's exactly what the masses are asking for, but it's discouraging that Deutch and his crew didn't even try to bring anything more to the tired game.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)


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