After all, Apollo Creed fought Rocky Balboa. The Bad News Bears out-hit the best team in the league. And David got that lucky shot off before Goliath could end his playing career. So while we're discussing lovable underdogs, why not tuck the beer-swilling, bent-nosed town pucksters from fictional Mystery in next to those Jamaican bobsledders and be done with it?
Screenwriters David E. Kelley and Sean O'Byrne, who were teammates on the Princeton hockey team 20 years before they were network TV wheels, probably won't win any Oscar for this valentine to local pride and small-town virtue. But they know the game. They know the raunchy things hockey players say in the dressing room and the way they check guys into the boards; they understand the thrill of the ice. Clearly they've transmitted their enthusiasm to director Jay Roach (best known for the Austin Powers comedies) and to a cast that includes Russell Crowe, Mary McCormack, and Burt Reynolds. Technically this may not be the most authentic sports movie ever made -- Slapshot probably outranks it as a hockey film -- but its loose-limbed sweetness and gruff irreverence are just right.
So how is it that the New York Rangers wind up playing in Podunk?
Credit (or blame) some harmless script nonsense involving a Sports Illustrated article about the roots of hockey in Alaska and a self-serving native son (Hank Azaria) who has moved away to the big city. In any event, tiny, hockey-crazed Mystery, whose boys and menfolk have played a famous pickup hockey game every Saturday afternoon since Lord Stanley was a pup, is soon to find itself in the big leagues for a day. A condescending TV network thinks the idea is cute, and a judge overrules the objections of the Rangers. There you are: Mighty New York faces off against guys wearing mud-brown jerseys.
Before the obligatory Big Game, though, we're drenched in local color. Crowe (L.A. Confidential) plays John Biebe, the rumpled town sheriff who's also an aging mainstay in the Saturday game, with quiet charm. We have Ron Eldard as Skank, the resident ladies' man, who explains himself this way: "Fornicating and hockey are the only fun things to do here in the winter." We've got Tree (Kevin Durand), a gentle giant who must learn to play big; the teen sensation Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott), who knows a lot more about skating than sex; and Irish-born Colm Meaney as Mystery's beleaguered mayor, torn between the local revenue the game will generate and the indignity it could bring.
Among the women, second-class citizens all, Mary McCormack is John Biebe's long-suffering spouse, and Lolita Davidovich is the mayor's unhappy wife. Maury Chaykin plays the town's hockey-crazed lawyer and Burt Reynolds -- all silvery, bearded, and paternal now -- is the stern local judge whose love of the game must be rekindled before he can join the cause.
These are stock characters, and this is all formula stuff. But the filmmakers succeed in creating the rough-and-tumble of an ice-glazed wilderness town, putting flesh and blood on central-casting types, and building the gate, emotionally, for the climactic moment. Sylvester Stallone punched out sides of beef getting ready for his big fight; Mystery's hockey players pull huge sleds behind them through the snow, like huskies. And when a snotty representative from a chain of discount stores comes casing the joint, the star scorer shoots him in the foot and happily gets away with it. By tossing in assorted subplots about marital infidelity, a gulf between father and son, and a crucial heart attack, the writers have covered their bets.
That's because they know an immutable Hollywood law: If the audience doesn't fall in love with the team, it won't go to the game. That goes for gangster movies and Westerns, too.
Not to worry. By the time the Rangers touch down in Mystery (actually a town built from scratch, just for the movie, in a mountain meadow near Canmore, Alberta), we're all amped for the showdown. It goes on too long, director Roach employs a few too many slow-motion shots and stretches of poetic silence, and the result -- not the final score, but the result -- is almost precisely what you'd expect.
But then, this isn't meant to be high art -- or high-sticking. As heartwarming, blood-thrilling entertainment, Mystery, Alaska puts the biscuit in the basket quite nicely, thank you, and everyone goes home happy. Over the course of a long season, sometimes you can't ask for more than that.