There’s something about blood on ice. The dark red against the pure white is striking and the cold makes the violence seem duller, and if the perpetrators of that violence are wearing the silly, sometimes goofy, bright and design-driven uniforms of small-town semi-pro hockey teams, then it hardly feels like violence at all. Goon (2012) understands this principle and makes great of use of it in its story about a simple man who is good at two things: being polite and beating people while on skates. I believe it is the first hockey comedy I’ve ever seen whose soundtrack includes selections from the Allman Brothers and from Puccini’s Turandot. It’s the best comedy of the year.
In Massachusetts, Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is the adopted son of two doctor parents and the younger brother of a third physician. He understands there’s a difference between himself and his family, but he doesn’t understand why that should be a problem. After Shabbat service one day he cheerfully responds to a man asking him what he does with a toothy grin and says, “I bounce,” referring to his job at a bar. His parents bristle embarrassedly and the inquisitor responds with “Like a basketball?”
Doug has a hockey–mad friend, Pat (Jay Baruchel), who has a cable access hockey show (most of his callers are pranksters and Pat’s potty mouth doesn’t take a break while on air, to the chagrin of his producer) and never misses a game for the local amateur team. When Pat taunts a visiting player, the player climbs into the stands to get him, peppering Pat with homophobic epithets. Doug, to defend his friend and the honor of his brother, who is gay, responds by beating the player senseless, even going so far as headbutting the helmeted man, crumpling his protective headgear.
Doug’s prowess attracts the attention of the coach of the amateur team, despite Doug’s less-than-stellar skating ability (he arrives to practice in figure skates). Sent in just to fight, Doug soon becomes a sensation and quickly gets sent up to an affiliate team of the pro league. It’s not the top but as his former coach says, “You don’t have to play on a team named after a radio station.” I immediately thought of KGGO Arena in Des Moines just a few miles from where I’m writing this, which gets filled with 2,000 people twice a week with people who like hockey but love fighting. Doug is being sent to the semi-pro team to give a pro prospect who was laid out in his first game in the big time some protection and confidence. Unfortunately, the once rising star LaFlamme (Marc-André Grondin) is embittered by his stalling career and disenchanted with team play. He’s just one of the slick, cynical team members who will test Doug’s sweet nature on a team that includes a depressed divorced captain, two raunchy Russian imports and a goalie who has pictures of his mother on his helmet, has named the goalposts Siegfried and Roy, and introduces himself to Doug with,“Two rules: Stay away from my fucking Percocets and do you have any Percocets?”
This is a lot of change for Doug to take in but his commitment to the idea of team is unwavering: He avoids walking over his team’s logo in the locker room, and he’ll beat the snot out of opposing players if they rough up his teammates, even the prickly LaFlamme. Sometimes he’ll praise his combatant as “a nice guy,” to the referees as they take him to the penalty box, and he responds to aggressive comments like “Are you ready to do this?” with a nice “Yes, and thank you for asking.”
There’s also Eva (Alison Pill), a local who Doug has fallen in love with but is dating someone else. She doesn’t simply break up with her boyfriend despite making no bones about her affection for Doug, because she wants to keep her options open. She chides herself for being promiscuous, which doesn’t seem to bother Doug, who accepts what little time she can give him and doesn’t concern himself with what she does when they’re apart. He’s like a puppy dog that punches people.
Doug’s team inches toward the playoffs thanks to the renewed sense of energy and goodwill Doug has infused in them, and a showdown looms between Doug and the premier enforcer in the pros, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber), who’s in the minors while he serves a suspension in the big league. The movie becomes a set-up to answer the question of which of the two can whale on each other the longest.
Goon operates in a well-worn formula and it doesn’t particularly add anything to it. This is not a subtle movie (right before Doug begins his hockey odyssey, Doug relates to Pat that everybody seems to have a purpose but him, bluntly setting up the plot [this purpose, by the way, he grows to refer to as his stomach light, “Like E.T.”]), and it’s not interested in exploring anything too deeply. It briefly sets up a subplot when Doug’s snobby parents continue to disapprove of his actions, even when he finds success, but it doesn’t pay it off or even pursue it with much verve. It was hard not to think of Raging Bull (1980) when Doug posits that he deserves the beatings he takes. There’s even a scene of a man pounding uselessly against a wall, mirroring Jake LaMotta’s lowest point in Scorsese’s film. It’s as if the five for fighting Doug receives is his absolution.
But I won’t get carried away; this is, after all, a movie whose hero unabashedly wears the number “69” and the most sincere romantic line in the whole thing is, “You make me want to stop sleeping with a bunch of guys.” But where Goon does differentiate itself is with the infectious sweetness of the unassuming Doug. I thought of Happy Gilmore (1996) during Goon, which has a similar rags-to-riches trajectory about a dumb man who excels at fighting. The difference is that Adam Sandler’s character in Gilmore is mean and more in line with the sulking LaFlamme than the nice Doug (Goon more closely resembles Sandler in The Waterboy  when Sandler played a sweet kid who excelled at viscous football tackling, but even in that movie a meanness existed that isn’t present here). Most comedies, even good ones, cast as their protagonist one who generates humor because of their badness; they create laughs because they are so far away from normal mores. Doug is the same, but on the other end of the spectrum. Here is an exceptionally immediate man, one with a childlike emotional range, who, when the lights are turned on in a bar can only reflect with great despondency, “Sad.” Credit Seann William Scott, for whom the word versatile doesn’t come readily to mind, but he made his name as the jerkish Stifler in the American Pie movies and here he’s vulnerable and totally unguarded. He makes the movie.
Despite its simple and predictable premise, Goon can elicit a strong affectionate response along with the laughs. It helps that it trades in the most elemental and basic of feelings, but with Doug as the center, it makes some of the parts that would otherwise be underwritten, like the romance, feel genuine because Doug is so much so. It’s also very well made, paced excellently and with some convincing and well-choreographed hockey sequences, culminating with the final minutes of a game over the strains of “Nessun Dorma” that can only be described as bravura. It has all the raw power of Rocky (1976) but with a goofy grin despite your better intellect. It’s fitting that opera should enter in the movie so much; this is a very operatic movie. I was beside myself to discover that the laboratory coordinator for the movie is named Alban Berg. The movie was written by Baruchel and Evan Goldberg, part of the Judd Apatow fold, and it’s based on a true story about Doug Smith, a minor league hockey legend. If he’s anything like his screen persona, I think I’d like to meet Mr. Smith. Off the ice, that it is.
***Note as of December 2012: Hockey fans are a rare breed. Their sense of ownership of their favorite teams and their players is absolute, something that the best hockey movies like Slap Shot (1977) and Goon understand. Although this has nothing to do with the movie, I was overcome with an unsettling feeling of outrage while watching Goon that a sport with such loyal fans must be held at the mercy of the incompetence of the people who run it. I can’t claim to be one of the people who are most suffering because of the NHL lockout, but there’s no denying that the sports landscape is better and more rich when hockey is in season, something that it should be now. Goon understands the game but, like most sports movies, is operating from a script, not from a realistic rendering of the sport; it’s hardly a substitute. What it does bring across is the love that the fans have for the game, and it’s a shame that the sport at its highest level is being killed by the greed and ineptitude of its powers that be.