A Goon Like All the Rest?

MIke Dowse's new film is drawing raves for its cinematic portrayal of hockey, but what does it tell us about the sport?
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Image via Alliance

Is hockey inherently un-cinematic? You'd be hard pressed to think of a single great hockey sequence, even in the few consensus great hockey movies. The whole point of Slap Shot is that end-to-end action is the last thing that the Charlestown Chiefs' die-hard fans want to see. They're more interested in bloody farce, and so is director George Roy Hill. When Paul Newman's Reggie Dunlop makes his stirring locker room speech about playing "old-time hockey," it's just a prelude to the team's near-immediate and wholly cathartic renouncement of those principles. Even a slovenly baseball film like Major League—a movie made under the sign of Slap Shot, right down to the rich-woman-wants-to-sell-the-team subplot—is able to leaven its antic tone with some generically poetic imagery: Tom Berenger calling his shot and beating out a bunt down the first base line. The most memorable shot from The Mighty Ducks is that fat kid forlornly tied to the goalposts.

The first image of Mike Dowse's Goon, which opens in US theatres this week, is plenty striking, with red liquid splattering against a pristine white surface. It’s a visual quote of the beginning of Mary Harron’s American Psycho, and “American Psycho" would also be an apt enough descriptor for the film's hero, Doug Glatt, an Orangetown, MA bouncer unexpectedly transplanted to the east coast of Canada to serve as enforcer for a minor-league hockey team. He’s not a mad dog psycho, mind you, but gently crazy brute like the protagonist of Warren Zevon’s “Hit Somebody” (itself rumored to be getting a film adaptation courtesy of the perennially jersey-clad Kevin Smith). Seann William Scott's open-hearted lead performance is Goon's single most successful feature, and a departure for an actor known for playing antic horndogs: as Doug, Scott replaces the Stifflerian shit-eating grin with a nervous smile and lets those sly eyes go soft and empty like a sheep.

Goon probably wouldn't have gotten American distribution without Scott's name above the title. American audiences aren’t particularly interested in hockey movies, which we could take as proof positive that most hockey movies aren’t very good. Canadians are another story, and Goon is already a massive hit in its homeland. Then again, this surely has more to do with the sport’s native popularity than any major aesthetic breakthroughs.

Still, the film’s ice-level camera is more agile and alert than we’ve come to expect from hockey films, which is certainly promising. When the bad-boy French- Canadian sniper Xavier LaFlamme (Quebecois star Marc Andre-Grondin) briefly channels the great French-Canadian goal scorer Guy Lafleur, there's some spatial continuity to his dipsy-doodling. But Dowse and cinematographer Bobby Shore save their most epic camera moves and compositions for the extracurricular activities that give Doug his purpose: his climactic showdown with veteran, retirement-bound tough guy Ross "The Boss" Rhea (Liev Schrieber groomed seemingly to suggest Jake "The Snake" Roberts rather than any extant NHLer) starts with an elegant long take with the combatants emerging magisterially from penalty boxes on either side of the widescreen frame. When Dowse cuts to an overhead shot of them circling one another, it's genuinely exciting and dynamic even given the slobby, ramshackle tone of what's come before. If their fight is Goon's money shot, the sudden uptick in the filmmaking style only heightens our investment.

Investment in well-filmed fighting scenes just may be Goon’s ultimate payoff, if not its moral center. Canadian critics have already tried to analyze Goon's take on fighting in hockey, a perennial subject of debate made more heated by the NHL's overtures towards "cracking down" on violence in the wake of so many serious head injuries. Goon evokes Marc Savard's concussion—not to mention the sad situation of Sidney Crosby—in a subplot about LaFlamme getting cruelly laid out by Rhea, and also the regrettable incident where former Wayne Gretzky bodyguard Marty McSorley was suspended (and criminally charged) for whacking Donald Brashear in the head with his stick. These assaults are emphasized within the film's casually and relentlessly violent world as being outside the norm, but only slightly. Dowse also hedges by including a scene where Rhea and a black, dreadlocked rival (a possible stand-in for Brashear) exchange friendly pleasantries before dropping the gloves. It’s just another day at the office.

This is not a screenwriter's invention: NHL enforcers have always talked about the "code" that they share, and most insist that there's as much affection as aggression in their clashes. This notion is developed more seriously in another Canadian film that premiered alongside Goon at last year's Toronto International Film Festival: Alex Gibney's The Last Gladiators, a profile of the troubled former Montreal Canadiens winger/goon Chris Nilan that doubles as a reflection on hockey's status as the only major team sport where fighting is tolerated and even encouraged by coaches and team officials.

Like the fictional Doug Glatt, Nilan was a tough a kid from Massachusetts who was scouted for his hard knuckles rather than his soft hands. He was a major contributor to the Canadiens 1986 Stanley Cup run, but was then traded out of Montreal; his subsequent descent into drug and alcohol abuse was widely framed by the media as a case of what happens when a player is abandoned in quick succession by his team and fans. When CBC Hockey Night in Canada pitbull Don Cherry called Nilan "gutless" and a "puke" for speaking out against fighting in hockey —suggesting it led him and others towards problems later in their lives—it was a personal betrayal (the two were good friends) and also a microcosm of the old-guard mentality. The first rule of NHL fight club is that you do not talk about NHL fight club— unless you want to talk fondly about "the code," that is.

Nilan's ravaged presence gives the The Last Gladiators some gravitas, but Gibney is less engaged here than in his films on Enron and America’s use of torture. For all its hand-wringing about the consequences of Nilan's career path,it finally offers a tacit endorsement of "the code," as if the director were either too intimidated by his subjects or else trying to ingratiate himself. The question is whether Goon's nearly identical posture is more or less dubious given its status as a hockey comedy rather than a piece of reportage. But the two films slide over one another like palimpsests.

Goon's best scene is a 3 a.m. coffee-shop-of-the-soul chat between Doug the Thug and Ross the Boss, which jokingly plays off of the immortal De Niro-Pacino summit in Heat. Like De Niro’s journeyman thief, Rhea waxes rhapsodic about his warrior’s code, but he also has his reservations. ”Nobody loves a warrior when they've come home,” he scoffs ruefully. It’s a sports-as-war metaphor with some sting, but Dowse quickly deflates the situation with a joke: Doug greedily scarfing his rival's fries once he's left. Then we're back to building up to that last battle and its promise of passed torches, and inherited mantles, and grudging, toothless grins of mutual respect.

Doug's final Biblical beating inspires his teammates to a come-from-behind victory, but the camera avoids their celebration. Instead it stays with a swollen-up Doug as he’s cradled by his beret-clad Adrian-Balboa manqué girlfriend (Allison Pill).“I think I got him,” says Doug, woozily oblivious to his own victory—or perhaps just slow on the take as usual. It’s a locker-room pieta of a punching bag who has attained a battered state of grace, the logical endpoint for a film that effectively affirms the primacy of violence in both hockey-as-sport and hockey-as-cinema. It’s rousing, mythic, and deeply satisfying.

I wonder what Chris Nilan thinks of it.

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"Dowse also hedges by including a scene where Rhea and a black, dreadlocked rival (a possible stand-in for Brashear) exchange friendly pleasantries before dropping the gloves."

Dude, how can you write about a hockey movie and not know that the black player was former NHLer Georges Laraque?

Dude, I know --

Especially since I'm a Canadiens fan. I've seen GOON twice and am so slow on the take I didn't recognize Laraque (whose own book on his career as an enforcer is at least as important in framing the film as the doc about Nilan). I thought of Brashear mainly because the scene where he's brained by Rhea is a direct evocation of the McSorley affair. But still, my bad.