‘Goon’: A Comedy that Punches Hard but Lands Soft

Sport is life’s great metaphor. It’s the physical articulation of life’s labor, pain, endurance, struggle and triumph. Sport is a grand narrative reduced to demonstrated action; fixed with rules and set to a clock whose tick and tock never shies from view. It’s a projection of both fantasy and reality. In sport there are so many elements of art and entertainment that to limit such stories to one field of play seems foolish.

On screen, sports movies occupy a distinct and often beloved space.Rocky, Field of Dreams, Hoosiers, Bad News Bears, A League of their Own, Caddyshack, The Natural, etc., etc. The sports played may differ, but the stories all share a similar overriding theme: triumph over adversity. The underdog is not just a character trope of sports movies, but a narrative requirement. Because, really, what would a sports movies be without an underdog?

When it comes to hockey movies it can often be hard to tell if the character or the sport is the greater underdog. Hockey’s bully status is all swagger as the game remains a perpetual runner-up in the wide world of sports. Therefore, it’s a perfect metaphor to bring to screen. The most recent addition to the hockey movie cannon is Goon, a comedy that punches hard but lands soft.

Seann William Scott (American Pie, Role Models) plays Doug, an affable, sweet-natured and harmless lunkhead. Endowed with bigger biceps than brains, Doug works as a bouncer at a local bar. Though not gifted intellectually, Doug is smart enough to know there’s more to life than keeping drunken patrons in line. He yields his fists without great thought, but full of heart. In his own dumb way Doug beats people up to express a wish for fairness, love and respect.

Doug lives in Orangetown, Massachusetts — an afterthought of a town that exists as only an overlooked signpost on the endless American interstate. A small, working-class city that survives through sheer determination in spite of considered neglect. In other words: a classic hockey town. Doug spends most of his time hanging out with his best friend Ray (Jay Baruchel; Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder), an excitable super fan who hosts a local cable access show devoted to all things hockey.

Orangetown’s local hockey team is pathetic and the action off ice proves more entertaining than anything happening in the rink. During a game one night a brawl breaks out and Doug’s impressive fighting skills are observed by the coach who sees potential in the young goon. That Doug cannot skate and has no real athletic ability is of little concern, for his talent is measured in knockout punches.

His well-to-do family is clearly bemused by Doug’s less than Ivy League ambitions. His father (Eugene Levy; American Pie, Best in Show), a self-important physician, openly disdains Doug’s choice of occupation. To which, Doug replies, “I’m stupid. For once in my life I get to wear a uniform that doesn’t have security on it.”

Doug is soon promoted to the Halifax Highlanders of Nova Scotia. He’s specifically called up to provide cover for the Highlanders star player, Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin), a self-destructing narcissist whose career and ego have suffered since a vicious hit by Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber; X:Men Origins: Wolverine, Salt), an infamous hockey enforcer.

Ross Rhea is Doug’s idol and will clearly be his future foe. The two men meet before their inevitable on ice face-off and Rhea articulates with considered insight their shared place. Telling Doug, “Like me, you’re no good to anyone doing anything else.” Through nothing greater than the strength of Schreiber’s acting talent he conveys a sad intelligence that rightfully contradicts the notion that goons are brainless thugs.

On the ice Doug is loved for his fists, but off his vulnerable heart makes it difficult to make meaningful connections. At a local bar he meets Eva (Alison Pill; Milk, Midnight in Paris), a self-acknowledged hockey groupie. The pair’s romance is slow, sweet and tinged with just enough wit and lacerating humor to make the audience care.

Goon doesn’t claim to be anything other than what it is: a light comedy about brainless acts of athletic violence. The central weakness of the film is not lack of effort but, rather, a too faithful respect for the simplicity of the genre. Goon follows the rules of all classic sports comedies but fails, quite considerably, to qualify as a success. The film, despite its pugilistic bravado, simply disappoints.

The movie is actually an adaptation of the memoir, Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey by Doug Smith and Adam Fratttasio. Director Michael Dowse (It’s All Gone Pete Tong) and co-writers Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg have done a serviceable job but this translation to screen purposefully feels edited for omission of all subtlety of character, narrative and emotion.

The filmmakers are too reliant on brutality for creative and comedic expression. A movie – even a comedy – about hockey goons does not demand outright reduction of character and elimination of original thought. Credit, however, should be paid to the film’s principal actors (Scott, Pill & Schreiber) for leavening the inanity of Goon with a low-key sweetness and charm.

The Blu-ray version of Goon comes with the typical overload of DVD extras. For those interested there are trailers, outtakes, deleted scenes, cast interviews, writer and director commentary, interactive behind the scenes features, goalie auditions, Fighting 101, and Goon Hockey Cards. Such extras hardly add depth to the film but they are harmless filler for both the truly dedicated or thoroughly bored fan.

In the end Goon, like its protagonist, is harmless dumb fun.

RATING 5 / 10