Back in 2012, when the world had fewer things to worry about, the City of Toronto got itself bent out of shape over a movie poster. The one-sheet for Goon, a ribald hockey comedy, depicted co-star and co-writer Jay Baruchel making a racy gesture with his fingers and tongue. After presumably recovering from their fainting spells, shocked citizens urged outdoor advertiser Astral Media to tear the images down, and suddenly Goon, Baruchel and movie distributor Alliance Films had a lot of free publicity on their hands.
While the poster for the film's sequel, Goon: Last of the Enforcers, is a tamer piece of marketing – just a simple image of star Seann William Scott on the ice, no oral-sex act implied – the movie itself is a more extreme product in just about every other way. Which is by careful design, as Last of the Enforcers is the first act of what creative mastermind Baruchel hopes will be the beginning of a new era in Cancon: gonzo genre moviemaking.
"I liken the situation in Canadian film now to the landscape of rock and roll in the eighties," an animated Baruchel begins, holding court in an emptied-out Toronto restaurant the other week. "Back then, you had record executives giving God knows how many bags of money to terrible [hair-metal] acts, and nobody was buying their records because they got old and safe. Then everyone heard Nirvana, and they had more heart and teeth and balls. Kids actually wanted to hear it, and it cost a tenth of what the execs were wasting their money on. So we, too, can punk-rock our way into this industry and go harder. This is a country in which our government will fund us to do just about anything. You just have to know what you're good at, and stop playing the Hollywood game. We need to take advantage of what we have here."
There's little doubt Baruchel did just that with Last of the Enforcers. Continuing the story of dim-bulb Halifax hockey enforcer Doug "The Thug" Glatt (Scott) as he gets older, weaker and saddled with more responsibilities in his marriage to Eva (Alison Pill), the film takes every opportunity to delight in the art of excess: The on-ice fights are bloodier, the locker-room talk is crasser and … well, did I mention the violence? Because this is one of the goriest Canadian productions to come from someone not named Cronenberg. It's a fact that delights Baruchel, who is confident Goon 2, and the rest of the projects he has brewing, could only happen within our own borders.
"One of the things that people need to starting cluing into up here is that so many people look at the difference between our system and the U.S. system and see inadequacies, that there's no way we could ever compete. But that's a false metric," the 34-year-old says. "These Hollywood movies have so many more masters to answer to than we do. There is a low ceiling on how hard they can go. They can't have the colourful language we have, or have the punches land as hard as ours do. It's all the blood and guts that I ate up as a kid before the complete PG-13-ization of every American movie, in which they were robbed of any sense of chutzpah or bold decision making.
"Those movies have to be PG-13 because they have to sell as many tickets as possible," Baruchel continues. "Well, we don't. There's things we can do to take chances and be more truthful to our sensibilities. People need to start seeing that as a benefit."
To that end, the reception to the Last of the Enforcers will be a litmus test for Baruchel's master plan: a new homegrown production company, which he aims to launch this year with writing partner Jesse Chabot and Nova Scotian filmmaker Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun).
"Our mandate is that Goon is a solid template that can be replicated," Baruchel explains, noting he and Chabot have an adaptation of the dark graphic novel Random Acts of Violence in the works. "We want to make horror, action, sci-fi movies – fun genre movies that are commercial and would find a home in a cineplex or a living room in the States, but that take place here, and are definitively Canadian."
It's this last point that sets Baruchel especially off – the notion that a film could be shot in Canada, with a Canadian crew and cast, yet producers would still feel the need to mask over any Canadian details, lest they somehow turn off global audiences.
"There's no such thing as something that's 'prohibitively Canadian,'" Baruchel says. "I've yet to meet the American who puts on Goon, sees a place card that says 'Halifax' and hits pause, not knowing what it's supposed to be, like they were confronted with an Escher painting. That's an insane, outdated, terrible logic that means the best-case scenario for a commercial Canadian movie is to sneak it onto screens without hoping anyone might notice it's Canadian. Why hide the fact? If people like this Goon as much as we hope they will, Jason, Jesse and I will get the opportunity to do something like it again and build something here. Which means our counterparts 10 years from now won't have to leave the country out of necessity."
Which is the situation Baruchel once found himself in, too. Although the Montrealer got started in the business young, acting in such homegrown productions as Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Popular Mechanics for Kids, Baruchel's name didn't mean much abroad or at home until he found himself in the centre of Judd Apatow's comedy circle, starring in the Fox TV series Undeclared and films Knocked Up and This Is the End (all alongside fellow Canadian and close friend Seth Rogen).
Yet throughout his many dalliances with Hollywood, Baruchel has never abandoned his Canadian roots. His IMDb profile is littered with homegrown productions – though arguably they might not have existed in the first place if they weren't able to trade on Baruchel's American renown: The Trotsky (directed by fellow Montrealer Jacob Tierney), Lovesick (co-starring Tierney) and The Art of the Steal (helmed by Jonathan Sobol, of the northern half of Niagara Falls), to name a few.
Last of the Enforcers, though, is a different level of Cancon than Baruchel is used to. It takes some serious head-scratching, for instance, to figure out the last time an English-language Canadian film received a sequel that didn't have "FUBAR" or "Bon Cop" in the title. Top that with a hefty amount of American stars in the mix (a returning Scott and Liev Schreiber, plus up-and-comers T.J. Miller and Wyatt Russell) and high box-office expectations (the first film earned $4.15-million in Canada alone, becoming the top domestic draw in 2012), and you have a project that marks the highest-profile feature debut for any Canadian director in recent memory.
"When we found out that [original Goon director] Michael Dowse wasn't available for the sequel, me and a few others independently went to Jay and said, 'Well, have you thought of directing?' Because he had a vision for it all," says Scott, better known as American Pie's eternally obnoxious horndog Stifler. "The first movie, I'd never been in something that's actually gotten good reviews, not even close. So when they were talking about doing a sequel, I was, like, I don't want to push my luck. But then I got Jay and Jesse's script. And on set, Jay was just an absolute natural."
It helped, too, that Baruchel had Dowse and a few other experienced friends to lean on for advice.
"I recognize that this is not a typical first feature, you know, four hipsters chatting in a coffee shop for an hour and a half," Baruchel says. "Dowse's advice was buy the most expensive pair of sunglasses you can find and act like you know what you're doing. Jacob's was, 'You've been on sets since you were 12, so you'll always have an idea, at the bare minimum, of what to do.'"
But there was also the little wrinkle of working again with Pill – Baruchel's former fiancée, who since their split has married actor Joshua Leonard and, last fall, given birth to a girl.
"It was bizarre. We had split three years ago, and hadn't seen each other in that time," Baruchel says, noting they first met on the set of the original Goon. "But she's a professional, and I like to think that I am, too. It's a testament to how much respect and admiration there is between us that no one balked at it. We both knew the movie had to happen. It was a foregone conclusion that she'd return."
Even if that meant Pill would be acting against Baruchel on screen as the pregnant wife of another man.
"Jay's a very loyal collaborator, so I jumped at the chance to do it. And I can call him on his bullshit, we have that sort of relationship," Pill says. "In terms of choosing projects, as I get older it becomes more and more important to enjoy who you're working with. Now that I have a baby, I cannot handle being away from her to be with assholes. That's become the real factor working with friends I know to be lovely, humble, kind, smart folk."
Whatever the many heartfelt sentiments, though, Last of the Enforcers will live and die based on a much harsher contingent than friendly collaborators: the movie-going public, in particular Canadian audiences, traditionally cold to homegrown product – if, that is, they are able to access it in the first place.
"We've been really poor about managing our resources, and broadcasters and theatre-chain owners don't have enough skin in the game," Baruchel says. "The Trotsky had the biggest promotional campaign as any Canadian movie I'd ever seen at that point, and it was out of theatres in a week. Because nobody knew it was out there, and it was on one screen. Goon is the only Canadian movie I've seen marketed correctly."
So if this new Goon hits the way Baruchel and company hope it does, it just might span a mini-industry of brutal and brash Canadiana – and, perhaps, a few more ancillary Goon adventures, too.
"I don't want to get into trouble, and I'm not saying there's going to be a Goon 3," Baruchel says, "but there's more than one way to skin a cat. We're not done in this universe yet."
There will be blood, then – and more than a few lewd movie posters.
Goon: Last of the Enforcers opens March 17 across Canada.