Describing Michael Dowse’s 2011 movie Goon to the uninitiated, it’s a hard sell: A comedy starring Sean William Scott about a dive-bar bouncer who finds his place in the world as an enforcer, or “goon”, for a minor league hockey team. In truth, Goon is violent, vulgar, absolutely hilarious, and completely sublime. A huge amount of the credit goes to the script by writers Evan Goldberg (Seth Rogen’s longtime writing partner) and actor Jay Baruchel, both of whom have a history of combining sweetness with vulgarity in movies like Superbad, Knocked Up, and This is The End. The rest of the credit goes to Dowse’s remarkable ability to direct action (almost unheard-of in comedies not directed by Adam McKay) and career-best work by the film’s lead actor.
Goon is a unique sports movie in that it is not a film about an underdog beating the odds to become great. Rather, Scott’s Doug Glatt (based on real-life hockey enforcer Doug Smith) never becomes even a good hockey player, really. He simply excels at one small element of pro and semi-pro hockey that has little to do with the actual playing of the game. He can fight. Doug is brought onto the squad of the minor league Orangetown Assassins, then sent to farm team The Halifax Highlanders, because he has a preternatural gift for kicking ass. Demonstrated perfectly in this scene in which tries out for the Assassins:
Doug’s function on The Highlander’s is not to play hockey but to protect his teammates, most especially one-time professional phenom Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-André Grondin). Upon the discovery of his abilities Doug Glatt is reborn “Doug The Thug” and finds his place in world, not as a star but as teammate.
Key to the success of Goon is the fact that Stifler is not in the building. Scott puts aside the smug douchebag persona of most of his former characters to imbue Doug with an unambiguous sweetness. What makes Doug impossible to not root for, and what makes him a good enforcer, is his all-consuming urge to protect the people about whom he cares. He is definitively not a bully as past Scott characters have been; a major trigger of the rage he can usually control are anti-gay slurs (he has a gay brother), and un-chivalrous conduct toward women. Not once in the film do we see Doug fight because he has been personally insulted; his brawling is always in the name of his friends and teammates. Doug is dumb and sweet almost to a fault, and while Goon invites us to laugh at how these qualities are expressed in its hero, it never suggests that he is dumb for being sweet.
Any hockey comedy is naturally going to garner comparisons to George Roy Hill’s classic Slap Shot (1977), and while Goon certainly owes some of its inspiration to that movie, there is far more of Rocky (1976) in its DNA. As with Rocky Balboa, Doug is a good hearted but dimwitted tough guy in a go-nowhere job that utilizes his ability to deliver beatings while sapping his soul. In a stroke of luck, gets a shot at glory and spends the movie readying himself for a battle with a legend who he may-or-may not be able to beat while also pursuing a tender romantic relationship. In Goon, the aforementioned “all-time great is former professional enforcer Ross “The Boss” Rhea played by the always great Liev Schreiber. Schreiber brings incredible pathos, not to mention humor, to Rhea. The filmmakers could have made Rhea a villain but instead he’s a man who has been forced to end his career in the ignominy of the minor leagues but wants to go out with dignity by going toe-to-toe with the up-and-coming Doug. The scene in which The Thug and The Boss meet in a diner, prior to their showdown, carries undeniable echoes of the famous diner scene shared by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat (1995): two men who have great respect for one another but who know their next meeting will end in violence, share a cup of coffee.
As is the case with Rocky, the sports plot splits time or, rather, is intertwined with its romantic plot. However, the romantic interest Eva (Alison Pill), is presented as a kind of anti-Adrian. Where Rocky’s Adrian is shy and virginal, a doormat who comes out of her shell after her first night with the “Italian Stallion”, Eva is… not that. A hard-drinking, self-described “slut” who “digs hockey players”, Eva does not need Doug to help her blossom, but she does seem to need a bit of his sweetness. Doug, in return, needs someone in his corner, which Eva delivers. While’s Goon’s romance may be less “romantic” than Rocky’s, it is no less tender and touching.
On top of the three leads, Goon’s supporting cast is uniformly great. From Doug’s best friend Pat (Jay Baruchel), the vulgar host of a public access hockey show called “Hot Ice”, to Kim Coates’ flinty coach, to Richard Clarkin’s boozy team captain who cannot make an inspirational speech without referencing his recent divorce, to Grondin’s douche-y/soulful superstar, and a cast of hilarious unknowns who make up the Highlanders , every performance is note-perfect. The ensemble, like the team they are portraying, come together beautifully around the good work done by Scott.
Goon could coast on the hilarity of its performances and the sweetness of its love story, but Dowse directs the action of the film’s hockey matches, and their attendant fights, with great kinetic energy, clarity, and remarkable believability. The film allows the audience to get caught up in the excitement of the game while inviting them to gawk and laugh at sport in which violence, if it is not out-right required, is largely encouraged. It is clear that Dowse, and more so writers Baruchel and Goldberg (both Canadian), have great love for the sport, and they celebrate the beauty of the game’s idiosyncratic traditions and culture, in a way that another great comedy of minor league sports, Bull Durham, does. Like Bull Durham, Goon celebrates players who will never reach the highest levels of their respective sports but who play simply for the love of the game and to help their teammates excel, and both are a kind of sweet, vulgar love song to a sports community that invites misfits and eccentrics. Goon will almost surely never garner the following that Bull Durham has, perhaps deservedly as Ron Shelton’s classic is the definitive sports comedy, but Goon has been largely, unfairly, overlooked. Perhaps it will receive a much-deserved second look when the Baruchel-directed sequel, Goon: Last of The Enforcers, drops later this year. Doug Glatt deserves his day in the sun.