[3 April 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“You’re gonna fuck somebody up real good, kiddo.” So exhorts Johnny (Jay Baruchel), by way of inspiring his best friend Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott). Newly recruited as the primary enforcer for the Halifax Highlanders. Doug is both thrilled to be wanted and uncertain of his value. He’s excellent at breaking heads, but he doesn’t actually want to hurt anyone.
Doug’s dilemma jumpstarts the buddyish comedy Goon. A bar bouncer in Orangetown, New York, Doug lives out a dream of sorts when he’s discovered at a hockey game. He’s not playing, but rather, in the stands when an opposing team’s enforcer comes after the terminally annoying Johnny. When the player employs the disparagement de rigueur—“fucking faggot”—Doug is roused to action because, he helpfully explains, “My brother’s gay!” As Johnny is also the host of a public access hockey talk show, “Hot Ice,” he’s got a camera with him, which means Doug’s brutal brilliance is on TV. The Orangetown Assassins coach, Rollie (Nicholas Campbell), is impressed enough to call Doug in for a tryout; despite his inability to stay vertical on skates, the kid shows gumption and a kind of genius when it comes to fighting.
It happens that Rollie’s brother Ronnie (Kim Coates) coaches the Assassins’ minor league team in Halifax, and so Doug is launched. With his first assault on the ice—following an opposing player’s hit on a Highlander—Doug earns fans’ groans and cheers and teammates’ terse nods. “What a debut!” the TV guy declares (at which point you groan, knowing the film will be deploying that most wearying of sports movies clichés, narration by game announcer, sometimes explanatory, always unnecessary). The referee sends Doug to the box, where the rookie huffs and shrugs, then looks out at the crowd and smiles.
Here, the camera cuts from Doug’s face to the delirious crowd to the Korean American teammate he avenged (an occasion for another joke about how dumb Doug is, as he bows his head and touches his fingers together in a goofy “Asian” gesture). And so, in this instant of adulation and recognition, Goon lays out its premise, that fighting in hockey is not only a grotesque entertainment and vocation for bullies, but also a means to Doug’s manhood. It’s a common trajectory, and Doug’s version makes that very point its point, that is, as Doug is nicknamed as celebrated as “Thug” for his talent, he’s finding an identity, a community, and a romance. He may look like an idiot and may have few options as to career, but he learns his worth and serves as an admirable measure for some of his fellows.
These include the young and reckless superstar Xavier Laflamme (Marc-André Grondin), sent down to the minors because he drinks too much and needs schooling. Assigned to “protect” Xavier (and even to be his roommate), Doug makes it his special mission in life to help the kid get clean and appreciate his gifts. At around the same time, Doug meets hockey fan and barfly Eva (Alison Pill), self-proclaimed bad girlfriend, who does her best to scare him off, but who is also drawn to his utter sweetness. As both Xavier and Eva are convinced to give up their wilder ways in order to live up to Doug’s devotion to them, he again and again an embodied contradiction, sensitive and ferocious, smart and stupid.
This last is a term he applies to himself, after a lifetime of being identified by similar adjectives. Thank goodness the movie doesn’t dig into this reductive psychological history, but it does glance at it and assumes you’ve seen enough of these mechanical boy-to-man plots that you get the shorthand. Thus, during a dinner with his disapproving his doctor dad (Eugene Levy) and perpetually moaning mom (Ellen David)—who show up periodically to spotlight the running joke that Doug is Jewish, that is, when Johnny is not acclaiming, “You’re like the fucking Hebrew Dolph Lundgren or some shit”—he makes a statement. To Scott’s credit (he’s actually very good in Goon, recalling his subtleties in Role Models), Doug’s speech is less painful than it should be.
Doug and his brother Ira (David Paetkau) sit next to one another, across the table from their parents, who are both as horrified by Doug’s job as they are pleased that Ira has graduated from med school. “Have you given any thought at all to the head injuries that come with playing such a violent sport, the concussions?” dad asks. “It’s an infantile way for a man to spend his adult years” Both Doug and Ira roll their eyes at this instruction, but it’s Doug who says something, after years of not meeting his father’s passive-aggressively antiquated expectations. “You have one stupid son, one gay son,” he announces, then explains how his job makes sense: “For once in my life I’m actually a part of something. I get to wear a uniform that doesn’t have ‘Security’ on it. Kids buy it and they wear and it’s got our name on it.” The camera cuts here to mom’s dramatically mournful face, as Doug finishes, insisting that he “protects” people and that he’s good at it.
Mom and dad leave on this note, which is just as well. And though Ira says he supports and is even “proud of” his brother, he leaves too, unable to be the man that Doug is. That man is modeled in part on the aging enforcer Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber), now in his last year on the ice. Though Ross appears intermittently in the Goon, on TV screens and in a diner, where Doug and he have a tediously contrived heart to heart. Ross proceeds to “impart some of the wisdom of my years on you,” as Doug nods and tries to remain calm while facing his idol across a diner table. “Everybody loves the soldiers until they come home and stop fighting. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Mmmm, Doug mumbles, “I don’t know.”
When Ross explains further, that he’s not a hockey player and neither is Doug. Yes, you know, they’re goons. “I’m here to do whatever they need me to do,” Doug insists, the camera pushed close to his so earnest face. “If they need me to bleed, I’ll bleed for my team.” Tired and cynical and ready to retire, Ross shakes his head. This is how the “team” works, of course, how hockey and other sports work, how armies work, how labor works. It’s not a remarkable insight, and the movie couches it in the usual way: you see the costs, and Doug delivers still more bloody, slow-motioned, on-ice triumphs. And you get to feel smart and stupid at the same time.