The inspirational sports film has by now been well and truly run into the ground. Delightful it is, then, that Goon, an unapologetically brutal ice hockey film and surprisingly honest character study, echews trite sentiment in favour of savage scenes of violence, vulgar language, and would you know it, an unconventional, sweet-natured, strangely likable protagonist. While it is liable to earn immediate inferior comparisons to Paul Newman’s wonderful 1977 ice hockey comedy Slap Shot, Goon nevertheless betrays the rule that most non-prestige releases at the start of the year are simply ropey castaways that the studios doesn’t have any faith in.
Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is a kind yet simple man who works as a bouncer at a bar, much to the disappointment of his parents (the father being played with a wink and a nod by Jim’s dad from American Pie, Eugene Levy). However, when in the crowd for an ice hockey game with his pal Ryan (Jay Baruchel), he defends his friend from an aggressive player, knocking the guy out and quickly earning an enthusiastic fan base. Before long, a hockey coach from his home team endeavours to recruit him as an enforcer – a player with little actual hockey skill who brutalises the opposing players and erodes their spirit – and his reputation as the sport’s new tough man, replacing the soon-to-be-retired Ross Rhena (Liev Schreiber), continues to grow.
Goon is the sort of film you might be keen to easily box into a corner and dismiss as a silly, clichéd sports film. Certainly silly though rarely clichéd, Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg‘s switched-on screenplay creates what is from its first scene among the most graphically violent sports films in recent memory, with mid-game punch-ups between players resulting in Kool Aid-esque squibs of blood shooting out of character’s mouths and dirtying the brilliant white rink (and the sound of each hit has a nauseating kick to it). Subtly, Baruchel and Goldberg mock the rather frightening rules by which the sport is governed; of how violence is endemic to ice hockey as a spectacle – watch out as one player is creamed against the crowd barrier, and blood smears against it while a young girl watches on in delight.
It’s a careful tonal juggling act, because films which critique violence while themselves being violent are frequently maligned, yet the comment here is never pronounced enough that it gets in the way of the fun. The brutal body-checks and exaggerated fights are gruesome and barbaric, but as fun to watch as a real ice hockey duel, with the benefit of slow motion and punchier sound effects. There’s never a mean-spiritedness to it despite how eager the film is to shed blood; this is passionate men doing what they do best with a certain degree of respect for one another.
Even the trickiest part of the equation – the romantic subplot – mostly works, because it is keenly understated and doesn’t overreach as so many of them do. Doug meets Eva (Alison Pill), a young woman with whom he quickly sparks, but there’s a catch; she has a boyfriend, albeit one she is no longer in love with. The complexities of this are dealt with in a gratifying manner without bogging down the comedy, keeping it as simple as possible and clipping along in an expedient, economic manner. Their gentle chemistry makes it work despite the limited screen time devoted, and Scott’s likability as the mild-mannered yet overwhelmingly powerful enforcer helps no end.
Many will be keen to judge Scott’s acting chops off the basis of his undemanding comic work, but Goon assures he has an untapped ferocity and endearing sweetness when given the chance. If you can stomach the unexpectedly strong violence, there is something even more unexpected here; a sly satire of the disturbing blood-lust associated with ice hockey, and a quiet, believable character study which makes the best of Seann William Scott’s underrated talents. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it hits more than it misses, and when it hits, it hits with convincing force.
The Goon is out now in UK cinemas.