I Went to a Fight and a Hockey Movie Broke Out
Sports movies are the best, right? It’s okay to admit it, you’re not the first person to “tell ‘em about Rudy.” Baseball’s got a ton of great movies, even the ones not starring a pre-Waterworld Kevin Costner. Don’t even get me started about football. [Really, don’t. I have a whole Friday Night Lights series lined up for later.] Basketball has that one movie with the golden retriever that’s pretty great, I hear. Oh wait, I guess it’s about a high school team from Indiana. My mistake. But there are so many other great films, including numerous Oscar nominees, especially if you like movies about boxing (which apparently everyone in the Academy does). Sports movies are awesome, but rarely does the black sheep of American sports, ice hockey, get its due.
How does Grumpy Old Men find an audience by appealing to Minnesotans, but the best hockey can do is The Mighty Ducks? I blame Walt Disney and his disconcerting love of all things frozen. Hockey fans have only one movie to turn to in times of crisis [and by “crisis”, I mean, “watching Little Big League”], the definitive proof that Paul Newman is the greatest actor of all time, 1977’s Slapshot. The story of a minor league hockey team, The Charlestown Chiefs, and their ne’er-do-well player coach, the aforementioned Newman, who must drastically improve their team’s attendance under threat of relocation [a story that would be egregiously (and successfully) ripped off twelve years later by the baseball film Major League, only with 100% fewer Hanson brothers], Slapshot is the high water mark of hockey movies, and there’s not been much to challenge it since. Some people cite the 1980s cheesiness of Rob Lowe’s Youngblood, some the Disneyfied sappiness of Kurt Russell’s Miracle, but Paul Newman’s Reggie Dunlop remains the brightest star of the best movie ever made about hockey. This was a truism to me until about a week ago, when I saw Stifler [sometimes known as Seann William Scott] take on the titular role in the Jay Baruchel-scripted Goon.
I went into Goon with high hopes. Canada has a pretty spectacular shooting percentage when it comes to comedy, from SCTV to The Kids in the Hall to Norm MacDonald [whose short-lived Comedy Central-produced Sports Show was a beacon of hope among sports fans who also love Canadia] to the new crop of Apatow protégés, which includes Canadians Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel. While Rogen has presumably become a bigger star, Baruchel, who sports a red maple leaf tattoo over his heart, at least got a movie that allowed him to make out with Alice Eve. He is also the co-writer of, and the obligatory best buddy in, Goon. Who better to follow in the admittedly daunting footsteps of Slapshot than a born-and-bred prideful Canadian with legitimate comedy pedigree? Man, oh man, I thought, don’t let this movie suck.
Thankfully, I was not disappointed. If Slapshot is the perfect 10 of hockey movies, Goon is a hard 9. Both films deal with the inherent violence of the sport, but they approach it in different and equally endearing ways. In Slapshot, the players resort to buffoonish thuggery in order to ignite their fans. The fighting is comedically grotesque and generally considered within the context of the film to be “not real hockey”. More importantly, the film unleashed the Hanson Brothers unto the world, a trio of the dorkiest, dirtiest, most lovable badasses to ever lace up the skates. Way before post-game press conference wanna-bes LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Hansons all rock ridiculous horned-rimmed glasses that would these days label them as total douche hipsters. If they knew what that word meant, they’d beat the shit out of anyone who called them that. They wrap their knuckles in tin foil in preparation for games, they assault the rink organist with a slapshot to the head from center ice, and at one point gang up on a player so viciously he pisses himself as he slinks off the ice. During their first game, a teammate calls them “a disgrace”, though he can’t help but watch the absurd carnage on the ice. In short, the Hansons fucking rock. Goon, on the other hand, while still hilarious, addresses the issue of hockey violence, specifically the hockey fight, in a more practical, but equally funny way.
The film is the story of Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), an adorably sweet simpleton whose only talent is being hard as nails and who, after being filmed by his hockey-crazy best friend (Jay Baruchel) laying out a minor league hockey player with cartoonishly ferocious efficiency, gets a call from his local team to try out for the squad. He can’t skate, he can’t shoot, but he can fight, and he is eventually called up to Canada to be the enforcer for the Halifax Highlanders, a team desperately in need of a “goon” to protect Xavier Laflamme, a former next-big-thing NHL star who has been demoted to the minor leagues since losing
her his nerve after a crushing hit three years earlier from the most notorious enforcer in the league, Ross Rhea (HBO Sports’ own Liev Schreiber). Rhea, after a long career of doling out punishment across the league, has been demoted to the minors as a result of one suspension too many, which can only end with a climactic battle between Stifler and Sabretooth. However, Rhea serves as an almost absentee villain in the film, as the majority of Doug “The Thug” Glatt’s struggles are with himself and the perception that enforcers, that goons, are not real hockey players.
The film argues against this presupposition, at times with Rhea, but most importantly with Seann William Scott. The greatest strength of this movie is the lovability of Stifler’s Doug Glatt. He’s so ridiculously sweet, the only way to reconcile his impossible kindness is by making him the baddest motherfucker on the ice. Seann William Scott has the charming doofus down pat, and as Doug the Thug Forrest Gumps his way to hockey stardom, Scott brings a physical presence to the role that makes his ludicrous feats of strength almost believable. His blind loyalty to his friends and family is the justification behind his violent prowess and the film plays up the role of “enforcer” as one as “protector”, a role countered by Ross Rhea. Rhea is, unlike Glatt, pragmatic and self-aware. He knows his role in the league and has no grandiose ideals of protectiveness to explain his violent play. He is on the ice to hurt people, many of whom are players he respects. He is not evil or overtly vicious, just a fighter, another part of the game.
Both of these players’ views are pro fighting in hockey, one side of a debate that’s been around since… well, since before Slapshot. The argument against fighting, and a major source of much of the physical comedy of Slapshot, has always been that it takes away from the purity of a game that can be, when played well, astonishingly beautiful. Recent medical studies in both hockey and football have led to a growing concern about concussions in sports and their debilitating effects on players post-retirement. By some, fighting is seen as a principal cause of the mass of career-threatening head injuries incurred by hockey players, while others argue that controlled fighting is a preventative measure to discourage players from making far more dangerous hits on smaller, more talented players. The truth is likely somewhere in between. Players supposedly fight to keep the elbows down, a vague, mutual destruction assurance that if the hits get too bad, everyone is going down. Hockey fights are meant to be a measured aggression, an agreement between the combatants, during which they fight the battles for which the other players don’t have to pay. Slapshot satirizes the violence of hockey by turning it into such a farce, it can only be the antithesis of what the game should be. Goon explores the culture of the fight in more detail, and doesn’t hold back.
Some of these scenes are fucking brutal.
Goon doesn’t romanticize the role that players like Glatt or Rhea or their real-life hockey counterparts play, but it does show a side of the battle many fans aren’t used to. We assume that when players drop the gloves, something has made them angry. I mean, they’re fighting, aren’t they? But the agreement, the casual conversation that prefaces many fights is so insanely cordial that one might assume this film was making it up. They’re not. And to prove the point, they brought in one of the best NHL enforcers of the last 20 years, a mountain of a man named Georges Laraque, to share an adorably violent scene with Doug Glatt. Ask anyone who’s sat within hearing distance of center ice and they’ll tell you a story in which two players traded punches, wiped the ice shavings off their jerseys, and said to the other, “Nice fight,” before skating to the penalty box.
Is that how it should be done? Fuck, man, I have no idea. Hockey fights are hard to watch sometimes, but the combatants treat it with a sense of respect that makes it seem more like a sumo wrestling match than a back-alley brawl. In this way, Goon’s villain Ross Rhea is more Roy Batty than he is Darth Vader. He understands his place in this world and his violent tendencies are more an implication of the culture that created him than an innate desire to cause harm. But like Roy Batty, stand in his way and he will fucking end you.
Goon succeeds in tackling a difficult subject and making it funny, not unlike Slapshot thirty-five years ago. [Oh man, I feel old. Do you feel old? I feel old.] It is abhorrently violent and dumb and hilarious, just like Slapshot, but its biggest hiccup is in its supporting players. If the film’s biggest strengths are its star, its writer, and its villain, the weaknesses come from almost everyone else. [The exception being Alison Pill, real-life fiancée of Jay Baruchel and Kim Pine from Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and love interest of this movie and I love Alison Pill. Ok, sorry, bye.] The star Highlander player, Laflamme, is as ridiculous as his name, though at least the filmmakers got some decent skaters to fill in the hockey scenes. Only a handful of players from this movie are explored beyond him, Ross “The Boss” Rhea [No, that’s in the movie. I totally didn’t make that up.] and Doug “The Thug” [I know, right?], but none of them ring as true as the goons. I’ve compared this movie pretty hard to Slapshot, and this is the first chink in the armor. The supporting cast of Slapshot made it a movie about the whole team. No stone was left unturned. The goalie, the veterans, the coach, the star, they all got time and some fantastic NSFW lines. Goon is all about Glatt V. Rhea, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The bottom line is, Goon is fucking funny and it’s clearly written from a place of love and respect for the game and its idiosyncrasies. If you didn’t love Jay Baruchel before this movie, make room in your heart, kid. If you didn’t love Liev Schreiber before this movie, I dare you to listen to him narrate an HBO Sports documentary and not tear up a bit. If you didn’t love Stifler before this movie, I’m not talking to you anymore. Slapshot, and Paul Newman, will always command my heart. But Goon did the impossible. It made me think twice.