Hockey, as viewed through the eyes of Michael Dowse’s Goon, is 60 minutes of fighting occasionally interrupted by moving a puck around on an icy surface. It shouldn’t bother hockey aficionados or anyone else too much since the film is delightfully crass, painfully funny, and grounded by a cuddly performance from Seann William Scott. The movie has a big place in its heart for George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot but it’s not trying to upstage its predecessor or make itself the heir-apparent. It’s just trying to make you hurt from laughing so hard.
Doug Glatt (Scott) is a kind-hearted bouncer whose can deliver concussions by the fistful. When he attends a minor-league hockey game with his hockey-crazed, foul-mouthed best friend (Jay Baruchel), he ends up knocking out a discourteous player who angrily attacks him while shouting homophobic slurs (Glatt’s brother is gay, but you sense that Glatt would punch out any rude person). His one-punch victory gets the attention of the team’s coach, he’s recruited as the team’s resident goon, and then he’s moved up to higher league team, the Halifax Highlanders, (not the majors, but one league below—I don’t know how hockey’s farm system works) to protect former hot-shot scorer Xavier Laflamme (Marc-André Grondin). Three years earlier, Laflamme lost his mojo after a brutal hit from legendary goon Ross Rhea (Live Schreiber). As Doug “The Thug” becomes a bigger star and the Highlanders have a shot at the playoffs, his inevitable showdown with Rhea looms larger.
Goon is just the right mix of sweetness, vulgarity, and offbeat humor. Scott’s breakthrough role was as the uber-jock Stifler in the American Pie movies, and it makes sense due to his physique and good looks. But he’s also got a talent for selling a charming naivety. He used it to some effect in The Promotion but Goon makes much better use of that performance. Because the violence can be absolutely brutal (Dowse knows how to make punches hit so hard that the audience feels it) there needs to be some counterbalance and that’s Scott. Glatt’s penchant for hitting people could have come off as slightly monstrous but since the character always fights to protect people, to shut up rude people, or within the designated space of a hockey arena, we accept it. But without Scott’s goofy grin and “Aw, shucks,” demeanor, it may have been a reluctant acceptance.
Glatt’s attitude also fits perfectly within the cast’s great comic dynamic. While the quirky sports team is a staple of the sports comedy, the challenge is in making those quirks work together because teams need to have camaraderie. Dowse, Baruchel, and co-writer Evan Goldberg (Superbad) don’t want to heal the psyches of Glatt’s teammates or give them arcs (with the exception of Laflamme). They just want funny characters that play off each other well, and they get exactly that. Goon knows where to look for a laugh and it almost always finds one. If it means making “Gay Porn Hard!” a battle-cry, then so be it. If it means trying to sell the audience that Seann William Scott is Jewish, I admire the ambition.
The film even makes the smart and admirable move of making Ross a respected giant of hockey thuggery rather than a Class-A villain who must be defeated for the good of mankind (bonus points for not casting one of Slap Shot‘s Hanson brothers in the role since it would have been distracting and a direct claim to the throne). Schreiber provides not only the gravity of the veteran hockey goon, but the mischievous demeanor a character like that would have. The only major misstep is the unnecessary love story between Doug and a self-loathing hockey fan, Eva (Alison Pill). It’s an underwritten role that’s unworthy of Pill’s tremendous talent, and the film could lose the subplot without missing a step.
Doug Glatt may be fighting for the title of hockey’s biggest goon, but Goon is comfortable making fast comic jabs and throwing hilariously vulgar punches. It doesn’t always connect and it gets a little bruised, but it eventually lands the knockout.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far: