I play hockey and I fornicate, ’cause those are the two most fun things to do in cold weather.
After football (actual football, not America’s glorified version of rugby), my favourite sport is ice hockey and I had been a fan of the Calgary Flames since the mid 1990s, however, other than that I hadn’t really been that into the sport until I moved to the Lancashire town of Blackburn in 2013. Whilst there, I started following the ice hockey team and even started working for them. Ice hockey took over as my go to sport for a long time and over the space of 18 months, the Blackburn Hawks won the League and Playoffs, also finishing the runner up in the latter the year before winning it.
Despite that, I hadn’t seen many films based on the sport other than the Mighty Ducks franchise and The Goon. I hadn’t even heard of many others, but then WatchMojo posted a list of the best hockey films ever, and once I saw that this film wasn’t relatively well known, I decided to watch and subsequently review it.
My one hope after my recent spell of reviewing several sports films that it is not cliche filled.
Hockey has become an obsession in the Alaskan town of Mystery. Every Saturday the ten best players and/or skaters in the town face each other in a game of pond hockey and to play in what is referred to as “The Saturday Game” is considered the highest honour in the town. Included in that group is John Biebe (Crowe), the town’s sheriff, and following on from one match he is told that it’s time for a new, younger player to take his place and he is forced into retirement.
Biebe struggles to adapt to life off of the ice, but he is given hope of a return when the community is highlighted in an issue of Sports Illustrated by Mystery born journalist Charles Danner (Azaria). The article says that the players in Alaska are a match for any team in the NHL in terms of skating and shooting ability, and the New York Rangers respond to this by challenging Mystery to a match. Biebe is disappointed when he simply asked to be a coach.
With the game being set up, several incidents put it in doubt, including cases of adultery, assault and a court case following the New York Rangers’ players refusing to play. Despite all the obstacles faced to them, the game does eventually get approved, but the townsfolk become increasingly uncomfortable with the conditions of the match constantly changing to suit the Rangers, rather than the original agreement. The townsfolk even debate whether they still want to play the match as it becomes increasingly likely that the result will be an embarrassingly high score for the Rangers.
Can the men of Mystery pull of a shock…..would it even be a shock?
So, was it cliched and was it any good?
I’ll start with the cliches and other than the odd thing here and there that happens during the near two hour run time (which I think is the longest film I’ve reviewed for this site so far), it is relatively cliche free. Yes, there are moments here and there, especially during the final game, where I successfully predicted what would happen, but I didn’t mind so much.
So let’s move onto the positive aspects of the film and I’ll start with that this really does feel like a community and that all of the actors are great friends with each other. Russell Crowe and Kevin Durand in particular seemed to have a great on-screen bond and that probably explains why this was the first of five films that the pair have worked on together to date (the others being Noah, Winter’s Tale, 3:10 to Yuma and Robin Hood).
Obviously Russell Crowe has gone on to far bigger and better things since this film, but he fits in perfectly in what is an impressively under-rated cast, also featuring Scott Grimes (who also starred in Winter’s Tale and Robin Hood with Crowe and Durand), arguably most famous for his role as the likable Dr Morris in ER.
Having seen several of the actors work together in major films since the release of “Mystery, Alaska” it was great to see that this was where the onscreen relationship between them all started and that familiarity helped with that feeling that they could genuinely be a team and a community. Normally in sports films, you get actors just randomly throw in together that have seemingly no connection of chemistry, but not in “Mystery, Alaska”.
That sense that you’re watching people who are genuinely friends really helps you get behind the characters and makes you want the team to do well. For me that is what I want out of a sports movie. I want the team that the film is following to do well, but more often than not I couldn’t give a shit because I genuinely don’t think that the filmmakers have done enough to warrant me getting behind them. For example, in the Mighty Ducks franchise, I refuse to believe that the worst team in the league suddenly becomes the best team over-night simply because they get a new uniform and are taught the very basics.
Real life doesn’t work like that. What the Mighty Ducks franchise effectively tried to teach you was that even the biggest underdog can beat the most overwhelming of odds, regardless of key factors such as pure talent. For me that is the deadly sin of sports movies and I automatically become disengaged in films like that. That’s why “Mystery, Alaska” works. It’s not overly cliched and *SPOILER ALERT* the fact that the Mystery team loses in the end almost makes it perfect for me as realistically there would never be a chance of an amateur team beating one of the best sides in the world. In the majority of cases, the underdog doesn’t win in real life, and films should reflect that more often. *SPOILER ENDS*
Visually the film is fantastic and the acoustics are exceptionally well done. Even though you’re sat in the warm whilst watching this (presumably), because of the visuals and the subtle sound effects (such as chattering teeth, the skates on the ice, etc, you feel like you’re actually there and cold with the characters. It feels like your there in person and this, combined with the community feel, brings you right into the story and the film itself.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film and it didn’t feel like it lasted two hours, but there were three major negatives that I had with it.
The first negative is a cameo from Mike Myers as a legendary hockey player, and the character is there purely for comic relief. Whilst that’s not necessarily a bad thing usually, it really doesn’t fit in with this film at all. This isn’t anything against Mike Myers at all and he does a decent enough job with the comic relief, but again there is precisely no need for the character in the film
And finally, one aspect of the film that confused me the most involved Kevin Durand. Now, I like Kevin Durand, as highlighted earlier in the review and much like I mentioned about Corey Stoll in my Glass Chin review, Durand is very under-rated in Hollywood and I loved him in roles such as Martin Keamy in Lost, Fred Dukes in Wolverine, Tucker in 3:10 to Yuma, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what accent he was trying to pull off. His accent changes several times in the film and it was kind of distracting to have a character that doesn’t say a lot, but when he does say something it is in a completely different accent to the last time he said something.
Speaking of accents, I’m curious how Colm Meaney’s character was born and raised in Alaska, to Alaskan parents, and yet had a Irish accent. Thinking of it, I’ve never heard Meaney with anything other than an Irish accent, regardless of the nationality of his character. Maybe in that sense he’s a younger version of Sean Connery, in other words someone who refuses to hide their accent for any role.
A thoroughly enjoyable sports film that almost doesn’t feel like a sports film. For long sections of the film it feels just as though that you’re there with them and you get fully behind the team, something which I definitely can’t say for a lot of sports films.
The cast does an excellent job, especially considering most of them weren’t particularly well known at the time and this came out before Russell Crowe hit the peak of his popularity, so at the time is was made there were no preconceptions about any of the actors and that really helps with the production and quality.
If you can ignore the minor cliches that are in the film then I think you will enjoy this film. It’s got everything that you would want in a sports film and nothing feels forced. It’s not predictable (except for small sections during the match) and you feel that the team actually has a chance.