No offense to Rudy or any Titans you might like to Remember, but back when I was growing up, sports pictures weren’t always such inspirational pap. As a kid, I learned the finer points of cursing from The Bad News Bears and The Longest Yard. Director Michael Dowse’s Goon is a glorious throwback to those sweaty, profane, cheerfully violent underdog movies of the 1970s—back when onscreen jocks were all foul-mouthed drunks with awful facial hair and ugly one-night-stands. Forget Miracle, this one would rather be Slap Shot.
I laughed so hard at Goon, I almost injured myself. My distinguished colleague fell out of his chair.
Inspired by Boston native Doug Smith’s autobiography, the film begins in a fictional note-perfect Massachusetts suburban dead-zone. Goon finds an appealingly subdued Seann William Scott starring as Doug Glatt, a melancholy bouncer working in a toilet of a sports pub, so gentle-hearted that he apologizes to the town drunks before tooling them up in the alley. Forever a disappointment to his lofty family full of surgeons, Doug’s an affable lunkhead wasting evenings in a moldy basement watching hockey with his best friend Ryan (co-screenwriter Jay Baruchel), who sports a magnificent mullet, hosts a lame cable access sports show and communicates exclusively in arias of profanity.
But destiny strikes one night at a sparsely attended extra-minor league game of local cut-rate nobodies. Ryan begins spouting off about how this losing exhibition “has become the kind of ass-raping that can only be comprehended by Ned Beatty or the cast of OZ.” Next thing you know, there’s a player in the stands, going for his throat. Loyal best friend intervenes, and a hand is broken while trying to punch Doug’s concrete cranium. Our hero follows up with a series of helmet-shattering superhuman blows. This earns him a spot on the team.
Doug can’t skate very well. He’s also not particularly good at hockey. But he’s brilliant at beating the absolute crap out of people, which naturally makes him a rising star in the sport. What’s so fascinatingly transgressive about Goon is that it accepts these vicious bouts of savagery—edited with a visceral impact obviously inspired by Raging Bull—as a gentleman’s code of conduct. Doug is the sweetest dim-bulb you could ever meet, but when the gloves come off he’ll knock your bloody teeth out, and then help you up off the ice. “Good fight, man.”
Moving up the ranks in the minor leagues, Doug finds himself on the Halifax Highlanders. This Nova Scotia outfit, with a hilariously incongruous Scottish merchandising brand, wasted their payroll budget on a $5 million contract for up-and-comer Xavier LaFlamme (the epically sleazy Marc-Andre Grondin), who then blew all his money on cocaine and hookers after being beaten into quasi-vegetable status by aging, disgraced Boston Bruins castoff Ross Rhea (Liev Schrieber, a revelation.)
“Where’s LaFlamme? Probably giving herpes to some single mother in the parking lot.” The locker-room banter here is second to none when it comes to creative obscenity. Scripted by Baruchel and Superbad co-writer Evan Goldberg, Goon spins dazzling curlicues of jaw-dropping invective. Our kindly, courtly “Doug the Thug” is dropped into a wildly dysfunctional grab-bag of drug addicts, has-beens, sex perverts and pathetic alcoholic never was-es, all of them boasting hilarious region-specific accents.
“There are two rules,” Doug’s initiation continues, “Don’t touch my Percosets. And do you have any Percosets?” My only quibble with the picture is that at 92 minutes it moves way too fast and is far too short. I would have liked to have spent more time with all these broken-down misfits.
But there’s also a romantic subplot to be serviced here, with the fetching, half-in-the-bag Alison Pill as a beery hockey groupie who confesses to Doug: “I’m scared. You make me not want to sleep with a bunch of other guys.”
And then we have the matter of Ross Rhea. Look, I know Liev Schrieber played Hamlet on Broadway and everything, but I’ve never seen him better than as this casual monster, hidden beneath long facial hair, endless cigarettes and an omnipresent, sadistic smirk. Concussion statistics and hefty penalties are chasing him out of the game he loves, and it’s only in “Doug the Thug” that he spots a chance to go down in a blaze of glory. So heady is their rivalry that these two are even granted a moment to spoof the immortal Pacino-meets-DeNiro coffee shop scene in Michael Mann’s Heat , and both actors play it desperately seriously.
In fact, I think that might be the key to what makes Goon so special. Nobody ever acts like they’re in a comedy. (Even the obligatory Eugene Levy cameo is dead straight.) The situations and dialogue are often absurd, but it feels like life or death for these performers, lending the bloody, tooth-rattling climax an almost apocalyptic grandeur. I loved this movie.
Director: Michael Dowse
Starring: Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel and Alison Pill