A thug with a coiffure and threads dating back to his long-passed heyday sits behind an overflowing ashtray and an armada of empties in the booth of a greasy spoon.
“All they want you to do is bleed,” Ross Rhea growls.
In the new movie Goon, opening Friday, Ross Rhea (played by Liev Schreiber) is a man who has outlived his usefulness in his chosen profession. He’s a bully and a victim. He’s a hockey tough guy, an enforcer. He has beaten up scores of his number only to be ultimately beaten down by the game.
Sitting across from him is a worshipful naïf, a neophyte rival on another team. Both know they’ll drop the gloves in a game the next night, a game that will be the last of the veteran’s career.
Goon is a slapshot-replete slapstick comedy that will hit hockey’s progressives with their heads down. It’s surely the funniest minor-league hockey-brawl comedy (admittedly a niche within a niche within a niche) since Slap Shot (1977). But the filmmakers may have badly misread the zeitgeist in not realizing that, these days, showing hockey violence as a barrel of laughs might seem entirely tasteless, given the deaths last year of three NHL tough guys.
Goon’s artistic merits I’ll leave to others. What I can assure you of, however, is the film’s authenticity. Having been in dozens of dingy minor-league dressing rooms, I can attest that it could only feel more real if it was in vintage Smell-O-Vision and a hockey-bag odour wafted through the theatre. It’s enough to induce an itch from psychosomatic athlete’s foot.
And the movie is not simple-minded: While the first half is cringe-worthy in its celebration of mindless on-ice violence, Ross Rhea’s arrival ambushes all who haven’t walked out. He is the darkest character ever in hockey on the screen. When he offers a soliloquy about his brutal trade, the film dissolves from an action cartoon into film noir. A cataclysmic end awaits him – he knows it and, tired of it all, he looks forward to it.
Directed by Michael Dowse, the film is an adaptation, less liberal than through-the-looking-glass, of Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey, the autobiography of Doug Smith, who went from the boxing ring to the rink in search of glory and a paycheque.
The real-life goon, a Massachusetts native, managed to pull this off, while discovering that weak ankles and ham-handedness were no significant impediments in his very specific role. In fact such limitations were almost a requirement as they fed desperation to take on this very dirty work.
In Goon, the movie, Doug Smith becomes Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), the dense son and brother of successful dentists. Goon screenwriters Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg can’t resist endowing Glatt, the movie’s hero, with superhuman powers. Think the Thing in The Fantastic Four, or fight scenes from the Rocky movies on fast-forward, and you have an idea of the gore and improbability of Goon’s action scenes. And like the comic books and Stallone vehicles, blows that should exact mortal costs don’t even give heroes or villains pause.
In fairness, though, it’s amazing how much Goon gets right.
Those in and around the game will recognize the types who skate through the frame: the party boy squandering his talents; the Russian tandem who lewdly trash teammates in thick accents; the captain who hits the bottle in the throes of a divorce. They’ll also recognize the sweet but slutty puck bunny and the black-hearted minor-league coach whose players go through his team like horses through a rendering plant.
Despite all that dead-on detail, however, howls from the usual suspects are likely to commence five minutes after the first showing. Goon is so politically incorrect South Park comes off like an after-school special.
The deaths of three NHL tough guys, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard, and the resulting coverage in the press of their inner demons over the summer gave people reason to reassess their attitudes about fighting in the game. So too did the revelation that brawl-induced brain trauma ruined and ended the life of Reggie Fleming, one of the game’s baddest bad boys in the sixties and seventies.
Goon could have been enough to get even the coldest souls to shout “too soon.” But I would argue the film is saved from that by Schreiber’s portrayal of Ross Rhea.
Schreiber accomplishes a seemingly impossible feat: He comes off as far more believable as a hockey tough guy than the Hanson Brothers and the well-scarred ensemble in Slap Shot – this even though the latter were in fact professional cement heads.
What Goon gets right is what strikes fans as counterintuitive: The game’s toughest characters are not its numbest numbskulls, but rather often the smartest guys in the dressing room, and certainly the most self-aware. NHL stars inhabit a world of entitlement and can coast for millions until their next contract year. The enforcer is there for one thing and when he can longer do that one thing, he is no longer there.
A few years back, I talked to a semi-legendary minor-league tough guy, Mel (the Mangler) Angelstad. He wasn’t so long out of the game that he had forgotten his last less-than-glorious days. He talked about constant headaches and going through bottles of aspirin like they were boxes of Smarties. He talked about the physical costs, his ruined hands and countless broken noses. And he talked about the realization that his time was winding down.
Angelstad didn’t have to say Ross Rhea’s line about the solitary demand placed on an enforcer. The Mangler figured it was self-evident that all anyone ever wanted from him was blood.
When I recently launched a series of mystery novels set in the unseemly subculture that is professional hockey, my editor asked me if I might look at a storyline about the death of a professional tough guy. My reaction was “too soon.” But watching Goon and its Ross Rhea character drives home the point that the death of a tough guy is not so much more grisly and terrible than his life, especially when he drops the gloves for the last time. And in that aspect, Goon’s a cautionary tale that the Canadian Safety Association should endorse.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Gare Joyce is the feature editor with Sportsnet Magazine and, as G.B. Joyce, author of The Code, a hockey mystery.
HOCKEY FILM ALL-STARS
Reg Dunlop in Slap Shot (1977): Paul Newman channels John Brophy, a legendary minor-league hard-ass.
Jack Adams in Net Worth (1995): Al Waxman captures the old-time NHL’s cruelty to and abuses of its greatest players.
Billy Duke in Face-off (1971): There by the grace of God and a sublime Art Hindle goes a player almost indistinguishable from former Maple Leaf Jim McKenny back in the day.
Xavier Laflamme in Goon (2011): Marc-André Grondin’s hard-living, friends-in-low-places busted prospect bears an almost uncanny physical resemblance to José Théodore.
Jean Beliveau in The Rocket (2005): Vincent Lecavalier wears No. 4 for his hometown team. Only in the movies.