As a young man in a small town in the north of England, entertainment was hard to come by in the late 80s and early 90s. My particular town did boast a two screen cinema (now an Australian theme pub) but in our pre-pub/club days, there really was only one social option: the local ice-rink. This pigeon-infested structure was of interest to local youth largely on the basis of the skate discos held there each weekend (think ‘50s hops, but colder). However, of far more interest to me were the rink’s resident stars: the most successful British ice hockey team of the day, the legendary Durham Wasps.
As today, the North East was a hotbed of football, with my town split – sometimes violently – between two local teams. A uniting sight, however, were the numerous, colourful Michelin Man-sized jackets worn around town by fans of the hockey team. I was a regular, shivering in the stands as a coalition of local boys and Canadian imports took to the ice in my name. This was a fast game, thrillingly dangerous, as blades sent sleet into the air, sticks clattered into midriffs, and pucks and bodies alike clattered plexiglass partitions.
Goals were met with cheers and chants by a surprisingly female-heavy crowd (particularly when compared to the aforementioned football), but it was a far more sinister element of the game which really worked the fans into frenzy: the fighting. On a ridiculously regular basis, members of both teams would remove various gloves and helmets and begin a punch up of the type that would be familiar yet frowned upon in the taxi queue not 200 yards away.
This violence wouldn’t be tolerated in any other team sport yet even to a sensitive youth like myself, its prevalence was intrinsic to the essence of the sport. I recall a local news report on one game concluding, “Eventually, a game of hockey broke out”. It was with all this in mind that I sat down to watch Canadian hockey comedy, Goon.
STIFLER ON ICE
Written by Seth Rogen collaborator Evan Goldberg in conjunction with one of the film’s stars Jay Baruchel, Goon approaches the inherent violence of the sport in a manner not seen since 1977’s Slap Shot and with as much brutal relish as the most bloodthirsty boxing movie. That the film is in the hands of Michael Dowse of Take Me Home Tonight and It’s All Gone Pete Tong ‘renown’ did not fill me with confidence; nor did the fact that the lead is played by Stifler himself, Seann William Scott. However, Goon is a movie which surprises not only in its violence, but in its successful comedy and central performances.
A “goon”, as any fule kno, is a hired thug, and the word is commonly used in Canadian hockey to describe a player whose role is to protect his team mates, rather than to contribute to the general play. In Goon, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber) is the ultimate example of such a player; an ageing hard man who prides himself on his ability to physically overpower any opponent, and whose assault on Halifax Highlanders’ flair player Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-Andre Grondin) has left the French-Canadian terrified, out-of-form and spiralling into a world of drugs, loose women and prima donna behaviour.
Into this uber-masculine world enters our hero Doug Glatt (Scott), son of an intellectual Jewish family, whose parents and brother are doctors with inflated expectations of their boy. Doug is an amiable idiot; slow, yet self-aware enough to understand that he cannot match his parents’ academic demands. Taken to a minor league hockey game by his best friend Pat (Baruchel), Doug earns notoriety and praise when violently defending Pat in a scuffle with an opposition player. This street fighting performance attracts the attention of the team coach and the offer of a contract. Soon Doug is on the other side of the glass, as his inability to skate or play hockey fails to dissuade the Highlanders from picking him as the ideal on-ice bodyguard for the out-of-sorts LaFlamme.
Scott brings a surprising amount of heart to the character of Doug, whose gentle naivety and innate loyalty includes a touching belief in his teammates and willingness to suffer in their name. When he meets hockey fan Eva (Alison Pill), it transpires that this decency and acceptance of physical and emotional pain also applies to romance. Even in the face of LaFlamme’s abuse, Eva’s unavailability and his parents’ disapproval, Doug’s decency away from the ice is in stark contrast to his brutality on it.
Make no mistake; this is a film which glories in violence. Just as in my days watching hockey in the local rink, the fans see the confrontation between their boys and the opposition as gladiatorial. With Eva (who admits her attraction to such primal physicality) and Pat cheering him on, Doug becomes the crowd’s hero, as he drops a series of rivals, happily waving his way towards the sin bin. The fight scenes are shot in close-up, every punch reverberating with the sound of slapped meat and claret colouring the ice below. That we are able to look beyond this blood-letting to enjoy the film’s occasional belly laughs and relate to Doug’s vulnerability is either a testament to Scott’s performance, or a damning indictment of our society’s numbness. You decide.
Of course, Doug’s path is inevitably leading to a climactic stand-off with Schreiber’s Rhea, though even their initial encounter betrays the mutual respect of gladiators; the suggestion being that these ‘goons’ are a vital part of the sport, willingly sacrificing themselves in the name of glory and the team ethic. It is an odd strength of the film that such mindless violence can seem to contain an element of heroism.
HOCKEY ON SCREEN
While the origins of Goon lie in a book called Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into a Minor Hockey League which detailed the career of boxer turned ice warrior Doug Smith, another clear influence is the 2004 Canadian documentary Les Chiefs. Les Chiefs follows the fortunes of five players with the Laval Chiefs, a semi-professional hockey team in Canada, including Mike Bajumy, whose brother produced the film. Bajumy, like Doug Glatt, came from an educated family (his parents were also doctors), but similarly rejected academia for the thrill of the minor leagues, much to the disapproval of his mother. Directed by Jason Gileno, the documentary details the squalid living conditions of the players and the violence of the game itself, while also revealing the blood lust of the Chiefs’ rabid fans.
The clearest link in Les Chiefs with the characters of Goon is found in the substantial shape of Tim Leveque and Dominic “The Giant” Forcier. Leveque joins the Chiefs mid-season to initial suspicion from his new team mates, but wins their respect by thrice defeating 6’7” Forcier in fights and eventually helping the team to the championship. This rivalry and Leveque’s ability to win respect through violence has much in common with Doug Blatt’s rise to prominence with the Halifax Highlanders and his eventual face off with Ross Rhea.
Of course, it would be foolish to consider Goon without placing it in the light of perhaps the best hockey film of all (Mighty Ducks fans, save your ire for the comments section), George Roy Hill’s aforementioned Slap Shot. Another comic-violent exploration of a struggling minor league team, it benefits from the presence of Paul Newman in the lead role and its refreshingly foul-mouthed collection of characters.
The fictional Charlestown Chiefs, led by veteran player/coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman) are perennial losers who find their very existence under threat thanks to the closure of the local factory, the town’s major employer. In an attempt to carry the morale-sapped team through to the end of the season, Dunlop resorts to manipulation, lies (suggesting that a mystery buyer may be about to transfer the Chiefs to sunny Florida) and an extreme change of tactics following the arrival of the Hanson brothers, a trio as dense as their jam jar glasses.
The Hansons are real ‘enforcers’, launching into violence at the slightest provocation, starting fights before the game has even begun and, at one point, even climbing into the stands to attack opposition fans. Suddenly, the team begin to win, the crowds return and Dunlop realises that this new ultra-violence may be the key to success. On the whole, his players revel in this new tactic, one even changing his name to the physically inappropriate ‘Killer’, but opposition fans are outraged (“GOONS GO HOME”, reads one banner) and Dunlop finds a moral opponent in his talented, college educated top scorer Ned Braden who insists, “I’m not gonna goon it up for you”.
Off the ice, many of the themes of Goon are present in Slap Shot, as the hockey players are presented not as elite sportsmen, but rather as hard-drinking, womanising wash-ups, caught in a spiral of small-town living, loneliness and divorce. Just as Goon’s Pat seems to belch obscenities with every breath, Dunlop is similarly profane (Newman admitted that the character spilled over into his own life and vocabulary) while the women who are drawn to hockey and to those who play it are portrayed as lonely alcoholics, dabbling in lesbianism and enjoying a love/hate relationship with the routine violence. This is far from the perecived glamorous world of professional sport.
Increasingly, Dunlop is corrupted by the violence he finds himself revelling in; one key scene sees him taunt an opposition goaltender until he provokes an attack. Grinning on the ice he, like Glatt, happily takes a beating on behalf of the team. This corruption perhaps reaches its apogee when Dunlop places a bounty on the head of an opposition player. He has lost touch with the game that has been his life and hockey, in both his eyes and those of most of the Chiefs’ players and fans, has become more about gore than goals.
Ultimately, all three films reveal very similar truths about the underside of minor league hockey and of the corruption of violence, though different conclusions are drawn. While Doug’s defining clash with Rhea provides the redemptive climax of Goon, Slap Shot relies on Reg’s realisation that winning by any means possible is a betrayal of his ideals. Violence is a part of hockey, but it is a sideshow, and should not be allowed to eclipse what is in itself a fast, skilful and exciting sport. Goon is a lot of fun, but not for the squeamish and certainly not for the sporting idealist.
Goon is released in cinemas on Friday January 6th via Entertainment One.