In his rhapsodic Massey Lecture, excerpted last week in Maclean’s, Adam Gopnik proclaimed hockey the smartest of all sports. But anyone judging the game by how it’s portrayed onscreen would come to the opposite conclusion. Blame it on Slap Shot, usually cited as the “classic” hockey movie. With Paul Newman punching below his intellectual weight as a brawling bozo, this profane 1977 comedy set the template by portraying hockey as a boneheaded spectacle of fists on ice. It was pure burlesque—literally, with its finale of a player stripping down to his jockstrap. Decades later not much has changed. Movies still treat hockey as a farcical blood sport, or a fantastic fairy tale in the Disney mould of The Mighty Ducks. The Americans didn’t just steal our game; they created its mythology.
Now, as Moneyball shows just how smart, witty and authentic a sports movie can be, the Great Canadian Hockey Movie remains elusive. There have been some good ones—namely Perfectly Normal (1991), a quirky mix of pucks and Puccini, and The Rocket (2005), a gothic biopic of Maurice Richard. And last year saw a colossally ambitious dud, Score: A Hockey Musical. Now two new contenders, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, show a whole lot of nerve but still don’t dignify the genre—Goon, a gonzo R-rated comedy, and Breakaway, a Bollywood North fable that could be dubbed The Mighty Sikhs. TIFF also launched The Last Gladiators, a U.S. documentary about legendary enforcer Chris Nilan, who fought his way from Boston’s mean streets to the Montreal Canadiens, then fell from Habs heaven to rehab hell. A sentimental portrait, it reinforces the image of the hockey thug as noble savage.
Goon makes a romantic hero of the enforcer without fussing over the collateral damage. Directed by Michael Dowse (Fubar), it’s a viciously funny, and just plain vicious, gross-out comedy about a goon with a heart of gold. Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is a sweet, impeccably polite bouncer who’s hired as a minor-league enforcer though he can barely skate. With Jay Baruchel as his foul-mouthed friend, and Alison Pill as the goon groupie of his dreams, the action caroms between grisly violence and giddy slapstick.
The bloodthirsty glee is broken by a fleeting note of gloom as a veteran enforcer (Liev Schreiber) warns our young hero that one day he’ll be forgotten, like a soldier home from a war. After the tragic deaths of three ex-NHL enforcers, “these lines gained more poignancy,” Dowse, an ardent hockey fan, told me last week. “But we’re a comedy and we don’t have much of a social agenda.” So why does hockey lend itself so readily to farce? “The sport is inherently funny,” he said. “The way they talk. And there’s something to be said about the physical comedy of the violence. That’s what Slap Shot aimed for, and that’s what we’re doing with Goon.”
Bucking the usual trade imbalance of hockey flicks, Goon (opening in February) has been sold for about $2 million to a U.S. distributor. Meanwhile, Breakaway opens across Canada this week after being released on 650 screens in India. Stickhandling through a wall of clichés, it’s a feel-good fairy tale about an all-Sikh team of underdogs coached by Rob Lowe. The hero (Vinay Virmani) is a 21-year-old employee at his dad’s trucking company who cuts his hair and is determined to play hockey, violating the wishes of his traditional Sikh father. The legality of turbans on the ice becomes a crucial plot point.
Directed by Robert Lieberman, who made the second Mighty Ducks sequel, Breakaway is deeply formulaic. But there’s a novel energy to its masala mix of hockey, hip hop and Bollywood. And it derives some veracity from the fact that its charming lead, who wrote the script, chased his own improbable dream—as an aspiring actor who loaded planes for his father, Cargojet magnate Ajay Virmani, the film’s executive producer. But on the phone from Mumbai last week, Vinay said he didn’t see Breakaway as a hockey movie, stressing, “it has a larger message—about breaking down cultural stereotypes.” Now if only someone could break the stereotypes of the genre, and capture the greatness of the game.