The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews
Goon is a great movie that manages to transcend its subject matter through excellent writing and acting while also just being really damn funny. It's a cutting and insightful comedy that digs deep into the mentality of a hard-luck character who has more depth than you'd expect, and it manages to commend his spirit while subtly condemning a system that exploits him. In other words, this is one of the smartest movies I've ever seen about a dumb guy.
My Rating: 5 / 5
The Part Where I Talk About Hockey
I've joked before that there really aren't very many good movies about ice hockey. I'm not sure why that is, but I think I have some ideas.
A lot of folks complain that hockey is boring to watch. I don't agree with this at all - especially not in comparison to something like football, which is 90% nothing happening - but I do agree that it's difficult to make an ice rink look exciting. Football fields at least have the benefit of being huge, outdoor things where maybe a freak rainstorm can break out, or you can see a city in the background or something. Hockey rinks are claustrophobic, empty white cages. They don't make for good cinema.
Then you have to look at the players. Football, baseball, basketball, wrestling... these are all associated with countless horror stories of rampant drug abuse, violent almost-criminal players who commit horrible acts of domestic violence, self-destruction, reckless spending, and endless drama. But hockey? The worst scandals tend to come out on the ice when somebody makes a particularly brutal move. Off the ice, the players tend to just go home and rest.
Not to say that there are never scandals, but either the NHL is really good at covering those up or they just happen far less frequently.
Oh, what's that? Steroids? Please. Who really cares about steroids? You think you're gonna get a movie outta that?
My point is that, in America at least, hockey just doesn't lend itself to DRAMA! the same way other sports do. So it's perfectly reasonable that there's not so many movies to show it off.
Fortunately, Goon is such a great movie it makes up for that.
Now I'll Summarize the Plot
Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is an incredibly nice, but also incredibly dumb, guy. He also happens to be gifted at fighting. More specifically: beating the crap out of other people. Since he doesn't have the education or capability for a better life, he makes his living as a bouncer.
His friend, Pat (Jay Baruchel), runs a video blog about the local minor league hockey team. While Pat is filming one of their games, they have a run-in with one of the players, who climbs out of the rink to attack them. Doug intervenes and lays him out with a single punch. Pat gets the incident on camera and uploads the footage to the Internet, where it becomes a huge sensation.
Shortly after that, the team's coach invites Doug to join as an enforcer. (For those who don't watch sports: an enforcer is a guy who mainly just picks fights with the other team. There's a lot of reasons to do this, both as an offensive and defensive strategy. If it sounds horrific to you that there's an unofficial position in ice hockey dedicated entirely to fighting, then, well... I guess hockey's probably not for you.)
Doug learns the basics of hockey and quickly becomes a local favorite due to his unparalleled ability to fight on the ice. Eventually, a more prominent team, the Highlanders, hires Doug so he can protect their star player, Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-Andre Grondin). LaFlamme is a talented player, but he's not especially good at fighting and has been doing a shitty job ever since he was taken down by another infamous enforcer, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber).
Doug accepts the job and... fights. A lot.
From here, the movie basically just follows Doug around as he interacts with his teammates and gradually builds up a following. There are plenty of subplots and side characters, not the least of which is Eva (Alison Pill), a hockey fan who Doug falls in love with. But in terms of plot, there really isn't much beyond what I've just told you: Doug fights hockey players.
This is entirely a movie about characters and their growth. The good news is that the entire cast is phenomenal.
This is the Part Where I Talk About Good Characters
I love that Goon has complex characters. Or if not "complex," then at least three-dimensional.
Doug himself is a great and well-realized protagonist. He's dumb, but not naive. He's tough, but sensitive. Friendly, but with a well-placed sense of justice and priorities. They could easily have turned him into more of an idiot character that says stupid things for cheap laughs, but instead they gave him a great depth of wisdom. He's a joy to watch on the screen.
Eva is an interesting foil for him. She is a habitual cheater with a fear of commitment, but she's warm and happy nevertheless. She's charming even as she is treacherous. You get the sense that she wants to be a better person to be with Doug, but it will be an uphill battle for her. The movie never shows it directly, but it's implied that Doug will be patient enough to help her make that change. It's probably one of the greatest subplots that's never actually shown on screen. Maybe the sequel?
Even the bit parts are rounded and perfectly-acted. Eugene Levy has an excellent turn as Doug's father, playing the role with equal amounts love and disappointment. Kim Coates as the coach is both a haggard, tired veteran who seems he could easily surrender to his cynicism and write off the game for life, yet he's deeply motivated to win. The rest of the Highlanders are likewise simultaneously sincere colleagues and hilarious cartoons.
Most tellingly, there aren't really any villains in the story. Antagonists, sure, but not villains.
It's easy for sports movies to fall into the trap of framing one team as "the good guys" and the rest of the league as either "bad" guys or just "not as good." It's also dishonest. Anybody who follows a sport long enough will realize just how silly the competition really is, since your greatest hero one season is supposed to be your worst villain the next. In a movie with this much great character depth, the film could lose a lot of steam and sincerity if it tried to pull any of that Snobs vs. Slobs crap.
Goon wisely focuses on the team's rise not as a narrative arc, but just as a series of character arcs. We don't actually get a whole lot of scenes of The Team fighting through wave after wave of competition - there's a little bit when it comes to Rhea's team, but only just enough to keep the plot moving forward. No, the real progression is just in how each player steps up their game and relearns how to actually give a shit about what they do.
I think that's why I like Goon so much more than any other sports movie. It's the only one I've seen that genuinely gets across that canard, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." The big climax to the Team's story doesn't actually happen during the final game; it happens right before it when you get the shot of them walking respectfully around their team logo. Prior to that moment, they've all lost whatever passion they might have had for their sport, but that's the scene where they're come back around to being hockey players again.
The final game is only in the movie for Doug's benefit: so he can fight Rhea, naturally. And even that fight isn't really there for any purpose other than to give each character closure (more on that later). Considering that everybody else is well and truly wrapped up, it almost feels anti-climactic.
And Now a Brief Comparison to the Other Hockey Movie
In a lot of ways, Goon is kind of the antithesis of every other hockey fan's favorite movie, Slap Shot. Slap Shot is a deeply cynical look at the exact same idea of weary veterans who play a ruthless and violent game.
The difference is that in Slap Shot, Paul Newman's character is more concerned with the business politics of hockey, not with the actual joy of playing. Slap Shot ends mercilessly. The final game descends into complete nonsense because the characters go through the complete opposite arc of Goon: the Johnstown Chiefs have made the final push into not giving a shit about what they do, so they just fuck around on the ice until the ref gives them a trophy.
Both movies are hilarious, but they're on opposite ends of the spectrum. Goon is the excitably new guy at your office who stays until 7:00 each night to prove his worth. Slap Shot is the guy who sneaks whiskey into his coffee and hangs up on clients.
Now I'll Talk About Exploitation
The movie doesn't pass too much judgment on fighting in hockey. I wouldn't say that it glorifies fighting; rather it just accepts that fighting is an institution that is not likely to change or go away any time soon.
Instead, the movie focuses on how enforcers are valued and loved by their teams and fans. Doug quickly rises to prominence and (basic) fame for his exploits, and the film frequently cross-cuts this with footage of Rhea taking out his opponents. At no time does the movie try to frame Doug's violence as "better" than Rhea's; both are presented in equally horrifying, bloody detail. The only difference is that we follow Doug as the protagonist.
This leads to one of the best scenes in the film when Doug meets Rhea for the first time in a diner... and it turns out he's just a pretty cool, chill dude. Rhea's no villain. He's just a fighter, the same as Doug. They have a chat and Rhea wishes him well, offering him some words of wisdom: "Everybody loves a soldier until they come home."
It's a pretty dark and sobering moment. Doug, of course, doesn't seem to fully grasp what it is that Rhea is trying to teach him. This moment, when paired with the final shot of Doug bleeding copiously in a darkened locker room, unattended by any doctors and joined only by Eva, tells a much more tragic story than the film lets on.
Doug is an asset to the team, but he - like every other player, like every other manager, like every other stick and puck and net - will be used up until he's broken, then traded, passed off, and maybe even forgotten. His health and well-being will be taken into consideration only to the extent that they are practical for the team's success.
At first you might get the idea that Doug is too stupid to realize how badly he's being exploited. But when you consider that he is with Eva - the only company he ever wanted - and that his team is winning, you get the sense that Doug is fully aware of how much he's being used. He's just happy to do it because of his respect for The Team. It's the soldier's duty to give up everything with no hope or expectation of reward or safety... and he's totally fine with that.
It's telling that both Rhea and Doug leave their final fight on the ice with a smile on their face. They both got what they wanted; Rhea had his last hurrah doing the only thing he knew how to do, and Doug got to be a hero to his team. Both of them will vanish after this night and both of them will hurt tomorrow, but for now, they are exactly where they should be.
I think I've really glossed over the most important part: this movie is really, really funny.
Thoughtful character analysis and incisive social commentary is good and all, but it doesn't do a whole lot of good in a comedy if there aren't any jokes. Goon happens to be crammed full with laughs, so rest assured that you're in for a good time even if you aren't in the mood for high-minded film discussion.
You might be able to find this on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but I suggest you just buy a copy on Blu-ray. It's a good movie to have in your library.