There is something about hockey — maybe it's the lack of glamour, pretension and insistent mythology — that lends itself to cinema, particularly comedy. And yet its aw-shucks working-class sheen and casual approach to brutality have delivered only one film worth crowing about: George Roy Hill's bruisingly satirical Slap Shot. That was nearly 40 years ago. Since then, several have tried and none have succeeded in finding the right balance between down-and-dirty comedy and rousing underdog drama.
From actor Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg (Superbad) comes this adaptation of Adam Frattasio and Doug Smith's novel Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey, which doesn't really change that track record but at least gives hope to a renewed interest in sports tales that cut their desperate need to ennoble with a healthy dose of foul-mouthed, blood-soaked debauchery.
Seann William Scott plays the pleasant but slow-witted Doug Glatt, a Jewish bar bouncer whose overachieving family looks down on him. Aimless and innocent, Doug has one talent — the ability to beat the shit out of people. He's not a bully, but rather a simple man (bordering on simpleton) who understands his mental limitations ... and physical gifts. Unfortunately, there are few opportunities for such person. That is, until his obnoxious best friend Ryan (an annoying Baruchel) insults a player at a hockey game and gets attacked in the bleachers. Coming to the defense of his pal, Doug effortlessly demolishes the player and attracts the attention of the team's coach. With few skills (Doug can barely skate) but bottomless enthusiasm, a hockey enforcer is born. Doug is soon drafted to the Halifax Highlanders, a minor league squad, where he's given the job of protecting Xavier Laflamme (Marc-André Grondin), a former hockey star who took a bad hit and fell into drugs, sex and apathy. Brawls, blood and Doug's infectious charm turn the team around, resulting in a shot at the playoffs and a romantic subplot involving Allison Pill.
Director Michael Dowse (Take Me Home Tonight) brings a grainy, indie look to his bloodier and more profane take on the Bad News Bears aesthetic. The dude humor is rude and juvenile, and hockey is mostly depicted as boxing on skates. Goon affectionately and exuberantly embraces the brute raucousness of the sport, but not with enough absurdity to compensate for what is, essentially, yet another tale of an affable underdog who makes good.
While it's laudable that Dowse and company keep the sentimentality in check and avoid infecting their humor with meanness, their shapeless script misses numerous dramatic and satirical opportunities. For instance, Doug's Judaism seems like a superfluous detail and his relationship with his disapproving family is mostly an opportunity for some scattershot jokes about his gay brother. Similarly, Scott's clunky courting of Pill never goes anywhere interesting or particularly funny, being mostly content to play for cuteness.
What makes the whole thing hold together is the winning cast. Billy Burke makes for a likably aging loser of a team captain, Pill reprises the quirky charm that made her a good fit for Scott Pilgrim, and Liev Schreiber is simply terrific as Ross Rhea, the legendary enforcer Doug looks up to. With his handlebar mustache and world-weary cynicism, Schreiber is dangerously authentic, a brute who grudgingly respects his young opponent but will not hesitate to destroy him.
In the end, Goon rises on Scott's performance as a lovable but convincing thug. Accenting Doug's slow-witted nature with an honest self-awareness, he gives the character an inherent nobility that endears some while infuriating others. Of course, you have to wonder about a film that wants to emulate the outrageousness of Slapshot but feels the need to warm the audience's heart. That doesn't sound like hockey to me.>