& lt;B & by Ed Symkus & & & &

In the very first frame of this tired movie, Keanu Reeves is seen in the middle of a big, wide yawn. And yes, that is a definite hint of things to come. Maybe if there wasn't already a film called Major League, about a baseball team made up of misfits, then this one about a football team made up of the same would have been a little fresher. But plot similarity aside, that earlier one -- a totally stupid but funny film -- is a grand slam where this one is a fumble.

The main plot, plunked down in the midst of myriad small ones, concerns the Washington Sentinels, a football team that suddenly has no more players since they've gone on strike. The solution to the problem, thinks the team's owner (Jack Warden), is to get a new coach, or at least get back the one they had years before, Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman), and have him put together a new team of... well, just look at the title.

And things start off pretty well. There are some very clever, very funny flashback intros for the guys he's assembled -- except for the one involving former star quarterback Shane Falco (Reeves), which gets a totally serious treatment. And before you can say "Hup!" the ragtag team of big bruisers (including a felon currently doing time and a sumo wrestler) are on the field.

And right there is where the cliches start flying, ranging from bad woman drivers to the same old pep talk every coach has given every team. The film tries to remain funny by suggesting that no one on this team is going to get along. Bickering that starts in the locker room spreads out onto the field. The script also sets up a series of problems between the striking players and these scabs who have to walk by them at the park gates every day. But all of this stuff gets very old very quickly, and any initial humor is soon turned into repetitive shtick.

The love interest for Reeves is easy-on-the-eyes head cheerleader Annabelle Farrell (Brooke Langton, best known so far for Swingers). And she's not bad in the part, even though one of her first throwaway lines to Reeves is "I don't date football players." Sure she doesn't.

Oddly enough, it turns out that she's probably the best thing about the film. Reeves puts on a great shaggy, weary look, but his line delivery is simply boring. Hackman offers up a few of his trademark chuckles, but not much else. And the members of the team move smoothly from a bunch of guys who hate each other to a smooth working unit, without any explanation of how the transformation occurred.

Another problem, one of the film's biggest, is what scriptwriter Vince McKewin -- the press book mentions he has "worked on" Operation Dumbo Drop -- thinks is funny. Is it really funny to see a player smoking cigarettes on the sidelines, and later on the field? Is it funny, more than once, to see another player constantly celebrating successes in the game by chasing down and beating up his own teammates? Is it at all funny to see a bunch of obviously embarrassed actors getting down to a sing-along and dance-along of "I Will Survive?" No, no and no. And while on the subject of the smoker (Rhys Ifans), there's a supposedly serious sideplot about him owing money to the Welsh mob that builds and builds, but is suddenly forgotten and never addressed again.

Add to this some really bush league editing (it took two guys -- Bud Smith and Seth Flaum -- both of whom have done good work before) that includes repetition of brief scenes, as well as reactions coming well after whatever is supposed to be reacted to happens.

Wait, it gets worse. Late in the film, the plot takes an incomprehensibly nonsensical twist, supposedly tying up some loose ends, but really just forcing everything to lead up to the big cliche... errr, I mean big game. And once that game gets underway, there are no surprises waiting about the outcome of it. Neither are there any surprises about anything here. This is a movie for the unsophisticated yahoo segment of football fans. They're going to love it and will probably stand up and applaud at the end. Hell, they'll probably be standing up and rooting for the Sentinels right in the middle of the picture. For the rest of us, there's always a trip to the video store to pick up a copy of Oliver Stone's hip, quirky, masterful look at the game, Any Given Sunday.

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