For a movie about ragged, trash-talking thugs beating the crap out of each other on the ice, "Goon" is surprisingly sweet.
It's not a Judd Apatow production but it does feature his signature brand - a balance of raunchiness and heart that's hard to strike - as well as some of his old friends. Seth Rogen's frequent writing partner, Evan Goldberg, teams up this time with Jay Baruchel ("Undeclared," ''Knocked Up") for a story about a bar bouncer who becomes an unlikely hockey enforcer.
"Goon" is as physical and fast-paced as the sport itself, as bloody as it is profane. The violence is shot and edited in stylized fashion, with an inspired soundtrack that ranges from Rush to Puccini, but the hits feel brutal and real. Baruchel, who also plays a supporting role here, is a Montreal native and a Canadiens nut, and that love for the sport radiates through every frame.
Director Michael Dowse's film is all formula: Scrappy, underdog team on the rise gets a shot at the playoffs, featuring a hero who must face a rival in order to prove himself in the climax, and there's even a little romance thrown in. But it offers enough tweaks to those conventions to make "Goon" feel unexpectedly fresh. It also shines a light on an element of the game that casual fans may not know much about: the role of the enforcer, the guy whose job it is to protect the stars and sacrifice his body in the name of revenge.
That's Seann William Scott's purpose, although he's playing against type as the guileless, kind-hearted Doug Glatt. Doug works security at a Boston-area bar, but he can take a hit - and, more importantly, he can deliver one - a skill he displays when he gets into a brawl with a player while attending a minor-league hockey game. Baruchel co-stars as Doug's fast-talking, hockey-obsessed best friend who eggs him on: "You're like the (expletive) Hebrew Dolph Lundgren or some (expletive)," he gushes.
Doug's abilities land him on the struggling team in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Never mind that he doesn't know how to play hockey, or even skate for that matter. He's there to be the thug in a rag-tag crew that includes the coke-snorting, womanizing prima donna Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin). There's definitely a shaggy, "Slap Shot" vibe to this bunch, and that is a huge compliment. And man, is there a lot of bad facial hair in this movie.
Some of it sits on the face of Liev Schrieber as Ross Rhea, a longtime goon who plays for the team in St. John's, Newfoundland, and is on the verge of retirement (yes, another sports-film cliche). Naturally, Ross and Doug must drop the gloves and square off at some point. But being the excellent, versatile character actor he is, Schreiber brings a nuanced sense of cynicism and world-weary bite to the role, as well as a sense of gravitas through his rich voice and hulking presence.
Alison Pill also gets more of a fleshed-out part than you might expect as Eva, the local hockey groupie Doug makes the mistake of falling for; she has a very different kind of presence, she's never just "the girl." Eva is frequently drunk and self-loathing. She also happens to have a boyfriend. But "Goon" isn't cruel to her; rather it has the decency to present her as flawed.
That's the lovely surprise that happens over and over while watching "Goon." Yes, it begins with blood splattering on the ice in slow motion, but it's also about friendship, loyalty and teamwork in much more convincing ways than glossier, feel-good movies.
"Goon," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R for brutal violence, non-stop language, some strong sexual content and drug use. Running time: 91 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.