Note: I’m taking much of this week off in between Comic-Con and press tour. This is one of a few posts I wrote in advance that should publish this week. If you’re wondering why I didn’t cover a particular show or story this week, it’s because I’m on vacation.
As I’ve often said in the last couple of years, HitFix has a terrific (and ever-expanding) collection of film writers, and for the most part I leave it to them to cover the cinema. Every now and then, though, a movie is so in my wheelhouse that I feel like I have no choice but to write something about it.
“Goon” happens to be one of those movies. It fed my weakness for underdog sports fiction something fierce, while also being executed well enough that I imagine I would have taken enormous pleasure from it even without the genre bias. (In support of this theory, Drew liked it a lot, and he’s not a sucker for these kinds of movies the way I am.)
A few thoughts on why I enjoyed it so much – starting vaguely and then moving into more spoiler-y territory as we go along (warning beforehand) – coming up just as soon as our stomach lights have something important to say…
One of my all-time favorite songs by the late, great Warren Zevon is “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song),” the tale of a hockey goon who always had ambitions of being a real player, despite everyone insisting that his only value is to beat the snot out of opposing players. He clings to his dream until (10-year-old song spoiler aho) it literally kills him. I always thought that would make a great movie, and it’s entirely possible that Kevin Smith’s in-the-works film adaptation will be exactly that.
But in the meantime, we have “Goon” (which has traveled a circuitous release schedule that included a stint as a cable On Demand premiere, then in theaters, and now on Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime and for purchase as a DVD or download), which tells the related but not identical story of a hockey goon – Doug Glatt, played by Seann William Scott (who at one point was in talks to star in “Hit Somebody!”) – who might like to be a real player if he could, but in the meantime gets so many dreams fulfilled by the opportunity to strap on some skates and throw down in defense of his teammates.
“Goon” was written by Evan Goldberg and Jay Baruchel (who has a small role as Doug’s foul-mouthed best friend, who hosts a call-in show about hockey), very loosely based on the life and memoir of minor league hockey goon Doug “The Hammer” Smith. Here, Doug is the adopted son of a respectable Jewish doctor (Eugene Levy) who isn’t as smart or driven as as the rest of his family, but has one undeniable skill: he is very, very good at fighting. And after he convincingly wins a fight with a minor league hockey player who comes into the stands, he’s given a chance to learn how to skate, hold a stick, and defend his teammates.
Baruchel grew up in Montreal, and he knows and loves the world of professional hockey. Doug winds up on a minor league team packed with players who at once seem like familiar types and yet very specific, including the former hotshot prospect who never lived up to his potential and the aging captain (named Gord, of course) just barely hanging on.
What makes “Goon” work so well is that it simultaneously celebrates the tradition of the hockey goon even as it’s pointing out the absurdity of it. It’s ridiculous that this is an accepted part of a major sport, and yet it is, and from Doug’s point of view, the job finally gives him a purpose. He’s not excited to beat people up (though he’s great at it); he’s excited by the chance to be part of a team, and to protect his teammates.
The movie walks that knife edge in Doug’s personal life, too, as he gets into a romance with a hockey groupie played by Alison PIll (in a role that gives her much more spark and strength than she’s allowed to show on “The Newsroom”). The movie doesn’t try to hide the fact that Doug is dumb bordering on simple, but it also shows us repeatedly that he’s a nice, sweet guy, and this is perhaps the most endearing performance of Scott’s career.
The one specific about the movie I want to discuss involves the use of Liev Schreiber as Ross Rhea, a legendary NHL hockey goon who’s finishing out the final season of his career in the same minor league as Doug. Inevitably, the two meet, but it happens first away from the ice:
What I love about that scene, and about the way Schreiber is used in general, is that Rhea isn’t a villain, but an antagonist, and that makes a world of difference. You want to root for Doug to win their climactic fight (it’s not spoiling things in the least to say they fight at the end, as the movie would make no sense if they didn’t) not because you hate Rhea, but because you respect and understand him and want Doug to beat the best there is. Schreiber’s not on screen very much, but in scenes like that one in the coffee shop, he says so much about who Ross Rhea is, the role of the goon, and what Doug Glatt might become if he sticks around the game long enough.
Again, it takes little for this type of movie to please me, but I didn’t just enjoy “Goon” because I love sports movies. I enjoyed it because there was so much craft (the hockey scenes, and the fights in the hockey scenes, are wonderfully shot) and joy and warmth in the movie to go along with all the requisite moments and gags you expect from it.
For those who’ve already seen it, what did you think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org