Hollywood loves baseball. It's the most popular movie sport, with almost 100 films paying homage to the game -- but they're rarely as much fun as football movies.
Baseball is a metaphor for life, death and second chances. Think of The Natural, Field Of Dreams and For Love Of The Game, and even dramas like Ironweed and Stealing Home. These are weighty movies.
But football films -- they're meant to entertain, even when they're about heavy stuff. That's because, unlike baseball, which is all about contemplation, football focuses on confrontation, aggressive, Us-vs.-Them battles -- and it's a lot more fun to watch someone doing something than thinking something.
Coveted jersey The best football movie of all-time is still The Longest Yard, with Burt Reynolds. The in-his-prime Reynolds stars as a former pro quarterback gone crooked who's sent to prison, where he organizes a game between the inmates and the guards. The home team -- the criminals -- are the Mean Machine, and as a kid I remember coveting the black Mean Machine jersey my neighbour Sue wore when we played pickup football on our street. I've been searching for that jersey ever since, because there's never been a tougher cinematic team, and that includes Slap Shot's Chiefs.
The Longest Yard is wonderful because it's vicious, the supposed bad guys (society's offenders) are really the good guys, and Reynolds redeems himself with a selfless act that would make a masochistic martyr proud.
The Replacements, the latest football film to hit screens, isn't The Longest Yard, but it's smart enough to steal bits and pieces from its 25-year-old predecessor and work them into its story about a team of scab players who get to play four games while the regular team is out on strike.
Washington Sentinels coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) has one week to assemble a team of eclectic, second-rate players to finish off the season. Coach McGinty's roster includes testosterone-fuelled cop Daniel Bateman (Swingers' Jon Favreau), butter-fingered wide receiver Clifford Franklin (Orlando Jones), chain-smoking Welsh place kicker Nigel Gruff (Rhys Ifans) and former college quarterback sensation Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves).
Spoiled millionaires It's up to Falco to bring the team together. They start to gel after a bar fight with the regular season players, a bunch of spoiled millionaires looking out only for themselves.
This is where The Replacements pays homage to The Longest Yard, by making the rich athletes, not the strikebreakers, the villains.
And it works because at the heart of all sports movies is the notion that the game is meant to be fun and should be about glory, not money. Glory. The pros in The Replacements are snarky, selfish titans who are humbled by a band of misfits who get the chance to put on their uniforms.
The script is fresh and funny. The comic one-liners are crisp without being too obvious, and the inclusion of real-life TV sportscasters Pat Summerall and John Madden lends authenticity to the proceedings.
Then there's Keanu Reeves. Reeves ain't no Burt Reynolds. He's tall, but not big or particularly strong. He doesn't have the cords of muscles that run up and down real-life quarterbacks' forearms like mini-highways. He sports a bad haircut and looks a little uncomfortable under the pads. But Reeves' taciturn delivery and low-key cockiness save him, allowing us to believe in him as QB. After all, quarterbacks are nothing if not arrogant.
Like all good sports films, The Replacements is powered by its supporting players. Notting Hill scene-stealer Rhys Ifans almost steals this movie as well, only this time he's got competition from the wide-eyed Orlando Jones and a pair of strippers-turned-cheerleaders who may not be politically correct characters but provide a hell of a lot of great sight gags.
THE REPLACEMENTS, directed by Howard Deutch, written by Vince McKewin, produced by Dylan Sellers, with Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman, Brooke Langton, and Jack Warden. A Warner Brothers release. 120 minutes. Opens Friday (August 11). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 65. Rating: NNNN