Goon – Art 1/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 3/5
There are a number of routes to take in building an easily consumed sports film. You can make it a socially conscious story about a Cinderella hero who goes from a dreary realistic maudlin existence to triumphant hero seemingly overnight (thus carrying the audience with them). You can do a satire that clings to the endless possibility of puerile boys being boys embarrassing themselves for our amusement. Or you can make the film about the game outside of the arena. What makes Slap Shot such a brilliant film is that it redirects those routes into one. Knuckle pucks and cake eaters aside, people who are fans of both cinema and hockey have been left high and dry ever since the Hanson Brothers made their debut appearance. But of note is a correlation of hockey to American pop culture. Slap Shot was made when the NHL was having its first big boom in the ’70s, largely because of the grizzly pugilism in the era of the Broad Street Bullies. The calculation that the Canadian filmmakers of Goon make (trying to sell both in America and to Canadian audiences barely ever interested in their own films) is that hockey is once again on the rise in revenues and ratings in the US, and one of its biggest sells is the fighting.
A few hockey films have been made lately, including a horrible offering on the life of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard – a film so besotted with a legend that its sentiment and stilted dialog made the other big Canadian dud Passchendaele look like Lawrence of Arabia. So it goes without saying that Goon is taking a huge risk in trying to sell to what is still arguably a niche market. Therefore, it can be forgiven for being a formulaic prance down those aforementioned routes that worked so well for Slap Shot. The new element in the formula is the archetypal simple giant, played wonderfully by Good Minnesota Boy Seann William Scott, whose character would usually be secondary or tertiary (i.e., the Hansons). Putting him front and center gives us a curious but brief window into the sport that might make people self-conscious about roaring for the blood at games, before returning to the regularly scheduled epic epicry of knuckle sandwiches. In the course of his rise to stardom as an untalented brute capable of walloping all challengers, Scott’s friendly ogre happens upon the reigning champion of the enforcer role, a reviled veteran scrapper played by Liev Schreiber with a handlebar Hulk Hogan mustache. He admonishes his younger adversary about the dark side of the life … where worth is in blood, not talent.
This opens up a dialog that erupted last summer after the mostly self-inflicted deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, three NHLers known more for their fighting ability than their goal scoring – a fact which by all accounts tends to contribute to the depression of many players, and especially lent to Rypien’s demise (though it was lower on the checklist than some other far more destructive issues). After these guys exited at stage right last summer, people began wondering whether the science of sports brain injury should worry the NHL and the hockey world in general, or whether the prevailing chivalric code of hockey should not be overridden by three incidental outliers. The resounding business response from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and others was predictable: the NHL buried its head in the sand and consulted the Discovery Institute to find some alternative theory, so long as fans kept buying tickets to a boxing match to see a hockey game break out.
Now, this ties in to the popularity of the game in relation to cinema. Despite the fact that any publicity is good publicity, I think Goon couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. The squeaky doorknob Jay Baruchel overcame the juvenile yuks and predictable climax to make an overall fun movie that represents and evangelizes the sport well enough, but in the context of last summer’s tragic losses, the public’s sensitivity might work against the movie in bringing in new fans who aren’t slobbering rabble. I think there is definitely now a glass ceiling on selling the sport on its jousting particulars, so long as there’s Mixed Martial Arts appreciating a dramatic rise of actual fighting and people dying from continually sustained blows to the head on skates. Placing all of the film’s chips on fighting with a finale that didn’t want to end (maybe the longest fight without a bench-clearing brawl in hockey history), and not granting the entire premise any connection to the complex fatalism of being a hockey fighter, Goon just might not age as well as the filmmakers wish it will. But I could be very wrong. It could be an instant boon to the sport as more rubes flock through the gates to see the splattering of blood. We are after all only a few dozen generations removed from the screaming mob at the Colosseum, and the more domesticated and nerf-padded our existence becomes, the more some reminder of our mortality will rise in stock.