REVIEW: Hockey Comedy Goon Doesn't Sermonize About Violence, And That's a Good Thing
Michael Dowse’s hockey comedy Goon is crude, violent and deeply enjoyable. It also offers the chance to see Liev Schreiber — a guy who’s played Hamlet, ferchrissakes — living it up as a bloodthirsty minor-league thug in the kind of ’70s eight-track-guy mustache that only hockey players, bless their hearts, still try to get away with. That, to me, is catnip in the form of a hockey puck.
In Goon, Seann William Scott plays Doug Glatt, the son of a respected New England surgeon (played by the always-rad Eugene Levy) who hasn’t come close to fulfilling his family’s expectations: He’s a scrappy, bulked-up guy who works as a bouncer at a local watering hole, the only sort of job he seems suited for, until the coach of a local hockey team catches some video footage showing how, during a chance encounter, he easily beats the pants off a mouthy hockey player. Doug is invited to try out and shows up in a pair of borrowed figure skates — they’re like dainty white cupcakes barely able to support the girth of his padded uniform — and makes the team not because he can skate or pass or defend the goal, but simply because he can brawl. Before long, Doug scrambles his way onto one of the stronger minor-league teams, the Halifax Highlanders, where he's seen as the heir to the throne that Schreiber’s rough-and-tumble Ross Rhea, who plays for a rival team, has been perched on for years. His dual assignments as a new Highlander: To bring back the mojo of one of the team’s best players – he has the too-perfect name Xavier LaFlamme, and he’s played by Marc-André Grondin — whom Rhea roundly smacked upside the head the previous season. And, of course, to fight.
If you’re looking for a bold excoriation of how ultra-violent (and dangerous) hockey has become in the past 10 or 20 years, please take yourself and your full set of natural, God-given teeth elsewhere. Goon never gets around to serving up a platitudinous “Violence is bad” message, which is one of its attributes. (The picture was written by Evan Goldberg, co-writer of Pineapple Express and Superbad, and Jay Baruchel, the latter of whom also appears in the picture as a foul-mouthed hockey aficionado. It was adapted from the novel Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey, by Adam Frattasio and Doug Smith.) Instead, the movie glides easily on Scott’s particular brand of firecracker sweetness. Scott isn’t typical leading-man material, but he carries Goon ably on his sturdy shoulders, both in the movie’s romantic subplot (in which he woos an adorable hockey nut played by Alison Pill, who in one scene is shown getting mildly turned on as a she watches a dustup in a televised game) and in the way his character stands up to the boorishness of his teammates (he takes umbrage when they make homophobic remarks, partly because his brother is gay and partly, you sense, because it's just plain wrong). There’s an air of bewildered naiveté about Doug, which somehow offsets his desire to break his opponents’ faces open when he’s on the ice: He’s protective of his teammates, and belonging to the team gives him a sense of purpose, even though his parents, proper upstanding citizens, certainly don’t understand it.
Dowse (It’s All Gone Pete Tong, Take Me Home Tonight) takes a great deal of cackling pleasure in showing faces being smashed into Plexiglas rinkside barriers and players being body-checked with caveman ruthlessness. He bookends his movie with two versions of the same image: Droplets of blood falling onto the ice in slow motion, followed by a single spinning tooth. Schreiber has one relatively quiet, pensive coffee-shop scene, but for the most part, he’s roughing it up on the ice with the rest of them, and he seems to be having a ball. Schreiber is a marvelous actor but sometimes a self-serious one, and this is one instance where he’s quite literally allowed to take the gloves off.
Goon not only fails to sermonize about violence in sports, but maybe even glorifies it. Even so, the movie is admirable for the way it refuses to offer us the easy comfort of watching its lead character learn a valuable lesson. Doug is a nice guy — you leave the picture believing that someday he’ll get sick of beating people up and hang up his stick for good. It’s just as well that doesn’t happen on-screen. For now, all we have to do is enjoy the movie’s wicked, gap-toothed smile.