There have been a great many movies about underdog sports teams, but only one of those was based on union-busting. That was The Replacements, a truly weird, but occasionally successful football-based romantic comedy from August of 2000, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.
The Replacements, directed by ’80s movie stalwart Howard Deutch and written by Vince McKewin, was loosely based on the NFL player strike in 1987. The NFL players union called a strike two weeks into that season, and the owners responded by hiring replacement players, who donned NFL uniforms and played games that counted for three weeks. Numerous players crossed the picket line, and the union eventually gave up, calling off the strike and returning to work; they later used the courts to finally be granted the right to free agency, more than 15 years after baseball players got it.
But not before the then-Washington Redskins, consisting mostly of the replacements, defeated the Dallas Cowboys, several of whose stars had returned to the team. The episode was the subject of a fine ESPN 30 for 30, Year of the Scab, on the occasion of the strike’s 30th anniversary in 2017.
Thirteen years after the ’87 strike, Hollywood decided to make a film fictionalizing the strike, with the scabs as the heroes. Set in a fictional, NFL-like league, much like Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday had been about eight months earlier, the film was about a fictional football team (the “Washington Sentinels”) navigating a player strike.
Team owner Edward O’Neil (Jack Warden) decides to field replacement players, and also to bring back old coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman.) The replacements have all played football at some level before, including quarterback Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), a former college star whose career was derailed after he blew it in a college bowl game.
Most of the players have about one character trait apiece, including a lineman (Jon Favreau) with anger issues, a receiver (Orlando Jones) with experience running from the cops, and an ex-soccer player-turned kicker (Rhys Ifans.) Michael Jace, who would go on to co-star on The Shield– and then get convicted of murder in real life– plays a player, ironically, who’s let out of prison in order to play. The idea is that these are all charming underdogs who never were given a chance and also happened to willing to cross a picket line.
The team bonds- like a lot of movies around that time- by dancing, this time to “I Will Survive,” and the team makes a surprising run, even as the entire Dallas team (as in real life) crosses the picket line and faces the mostly replacement Washington squad.
Meanwhile Falco, the quarterback, romances head cheerleader Annabelle (Brooke Langton- the girl Jon Favreau leaves messages for in Swingers), leading to the infamous scene in which announcers John Madden and Pat Summerall narrate their love scene.
The team’s cheerleaders, it appears, also went out on strike, leading the team to hire strippers in their place. Not only are NFL cheerleaders very much not unionized, and lots of headlines in the years since- even some involving the Washington team– have made this plot point not age particularly well.
The film was shot in Baltimore, using the Ravens’ stadium but giving it the name “Nextel Stadium,” perhaps the only time in history that a stadium naming rights deal was negotiated just for a movie.
Reeves was coming off of The Matrix two years earlier, but his reputation as an actor wasn’t quite at the level it is today. As for Hackman, it’s far from his best performance as a coach – that would be Hoosiers, while Brooke Langton has mostly been a TV performer in the years since, with recurring roles on Friday Night Lights and shows like that.
The Replacements was a medium-sized hit and got mixed reviews, but it’s gained some popularity through cable re-runs in the years since. Still, it’s a very strange bird, despite some charm and humor here and there. The film’s politics are practically reactionary, taking the pro-management line that players are cartoonishly greedy and should be grateful for the opportunity to play football. It’s also easy to imagine a much more compelling movie called The Replacements– namely, an as-yet-made biopic of the 1980s pop-punk band of that name.