Given the recent and overdue attention that has been drawn to the dangers of fighting in hockey — concussions, depression and even suicides — I felt a bit guilty enjoying Goon, a comedy about Doug Glatt, a thug who fights his way through a career in hockey’s minor-league backwaters.
Based on a true story, Goon is funny, poignant and bruising, a look at a shy brawler with a sense of decency and decorum. As played by Seann William Scott, best known for his portrayal of Stifler in the American Pie movies, Glatt comes off as a misfit who finds his calling when he learns that he can give and take a punch, a talent that seems to take him by surprise and pushes his life into a whole new sphere.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Goon inevitably will be compared to the 1977 comedy Slap Shot, but it stands on its own, and it takes Doug much more seriously than Slap Shot took its three iconic enforcers, the notorious Hansen brothers. For a movie that doesn’t skimp on hockey violence, Goon also has heart, thanks mostly to a surprisingly effective performance by Scott, who plays his character straight. Glatt, a self-acknowledged dumb guy, embarrasses his staunchly middle class family, a doctor father (a convincingly serious Eugene Levy) and a doctor brother (David Paetkau), who also happens to be gay.
Watching Goon — which is as rife with vulgar humor as with hockey fights — I wondered if I’d underestimated Scott’s abilities. He creates one of the most soulful thugs in recent screen history, a guy who you can’t help but like — for his awkwardness, his naivety and the apologetic way he goes about almost everything in his life. And to his credit: Scott never winks at the audience to let us know that he’s really smarter than the character he’s playing.
Doug, who plays hockey for the Halifax Highlanders, becomes a minor star in the world of minor-league hockey. Doug the Thug, as he’s known, shares an apartment with Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin), a highly skilled hockey player who took a major hit that so unnerved him, it brought his NHL career to a end and shipped him back to the minors. Laflamme resents Glatt’s rising popularity. He knows Glatt has only one skill: He can fight.
But what Lafalmme doesn’t quite get is that Doug has more than a rock hard head and fists to match; he’s loyal, eager to please, and genuinely wants to protect his teammates. In short, he’s got character, something which Laflamme — for all his skills — can’t match.
Perfectly cast by director Michael Drowse, Goon features some tasty small roles. Jay Baruchel plays Glatt’s buddy, a fast-talking, foul-mouthed host of a ragtag hockey show called Hot Ice. And Alison Pill brings grounded credibility to the role of Eva, a hockey groupie who catches Doug’s eye.
A scene between Glatt and rival thug Ross Rhea (Liev Schrieber) is as good as any I’ve seen this year. The two players meet by accident in a diner. The older Rhea, who’s on his way out of the game, schools the up-and-coming Glatt in a scene that’s smart, hard-hitting and smartly acted by Schreiber, who’s close to unrecognizable as a long-haired enforcer who has spent his adult life knocking out opposing players.
Goon has enough commitment to its unglamorous milieu to keep it from becoming one more raunchy comedy. Drowse — and his cinematographer Bobby Shore — make the hockey scenes exciting, and they don’t spare anyone’s feelings when it comes to showing the brutality of the fights.
Stick around for the credits for a look at some of the fights of the real Doug Glatt, who was known as “The Hammer.”
Look, I prefer hockey without fights, but as the story of a fighter with heart, Goon lands a solid punch.