“Goon”: A Controversial (and Potentially Important) Film

Goon, the new hockey film about a bouncer-turned-enforcer, was released last week. Courtney Szto has already written about the film on this blog, criticizing it for “poor timing and taste” in light of last summer’s deaths of hockey fighters Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak. I agree with her that the timing and marketing of the film were poor, however beyond that I cannot criticize the film without watching it. And who knows, I may end up enjoying it – after all, Slap Shot is one of my all-time favourite movies, and I think packs a subtle punch in terms of its social commentary.

Given that I have yet to watch Goon (I will post a review whenever I do) I cannot comment too much on the film. Instead, after the jump I examine some of the reaction to the movie, particularly in light of the current debates that are raging around the place of fighting in hockey.

Adam Proteau of The Hockey News is a noted anti-fighting advocate, so it is perhaps surprising that he gives Goon a positive review:

Goon is a profane, pumped-up, playful punch-out of a hockey movie. . . .

[Screenwriter] Baruchel has carefully crafted a film replicating the dressing room banter hockey players are famous for, as well as the honor that exists among players who fight for a living.

It’s odd to read a rave review from a non-fan of fisticuffs like myself, but this is entertainment, where nobody really gets hurt.

And make no mistake, Goon is entertaining as hell. . . .

Goon isn’t for kids. But adults who’ve long been looking for a physical, funny hockey film – a Slap Shot for a new generation – need look no longer. Goon will grab you by the eyeballs and give you an entertaining thrashing.

As he predicts his readers will, I find Proteau’s stance somewhat surprising given his anti-fighting beliefs. I do not criticize Proteau for enjoying the film, however his justification for reconciling his views on fighting with the film’s content is weak. “This is entertainment, where nobody really gets hurt” is one of those true-yet-misleading statements that can confound legitimate debate about serious issues. Coincidentally, it is the exact same argument that some pro-fighting advocates have historically used to defend fighting in the game. Don Cherry, in particular, has justified fighting on the grounds that “nobody gets hurt” and that “the fans love it.”

In fact, we know that fighting can, and indeed often does, involve players getting hurt – just as we know that media such as film can be powerful forces for promoting the legitimization of certain beliefs. I certainly do not intend to suggest that every person who sees Goon will become a pro-fighting advocate or that impressionable kids will rush out and start fighting in their house league games; however, it seems fair (based on the belief of many reviewers that the film is supportive of hockey pugilism) to situate it in a much broader host of media that condone, tacitly or explicitly, hockey fisticuffs.

A counter to Proteau’s enthusiasm is offered by Jay Stone of the National Post, who picks up on many of the film’s objectionable and offensive aspects, and rightly calls it out for them:

But too much of Goon is stupid-to-no-purpose: the Russian players who pretend to have sex with a goalie mask, the casual homophobia, the loving attention to the blood of hockey fights, Pat’s coarse hectoring. Hockey enforcers can be funny when they’re comic relief, like the Hanson brothers in Slap Shot, but Goon puts its marginal players at centre ice. Like their real-life counterparts, it’s too much of a bad thing.

Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy, meanwhile, conducted an interview with Liev Schreiber, one of the stars of Goon, that touched on the political climate in which the film was made and released:

[Wyshynski:] The film does come from a very specific point of view, sympathetic to hockey enforcers but supportive of hockey fighting. It seemed like a brave choice given that climate in the NHL when it comes to player safety and fighting’s future.

[Schreiber:] Ironically, none of that stuff was in the media when we were making this film, but what Jay and Mike have created is a great response to it. That at the end of the day, it’s about the character it takes to play this game and the contributions that these guys have made to the game.

If we’re talking about those deaths last summer, those deaths were due to — from what I gathered — depression and abuse of pain medication. What “Goon” leaves me with is a very redemptive message about the players and the celebration of their contribution to the game.

I think it’s something that might have cheered a couple of those guys up.

This was an important question, and I commend Wyshynski for asking it, particularly given his own pro-fighting stance. Schreiber makes a good point when he notes that the film went into production before the events of last summer, although this is where the “poor timing and taste” issue comes into play – should the producers have considered delaying the release of the film, or filming some new scenes to address the issue of fighting more sensitively?

I find it insensitive for Schreiber to suggest that Goon would have “cheered [up] a couple of those guys” given their noted struggles with mental illness. That being said, the idea of the film as honouring enforcers through the film is an interesting one. Certainly none of the anti-fighting advocates I am aware of are anti-fighter – their issue is with the role of enforcer, not the men who fill it. However, by framing the film as a tribute to the work of those players, Schreiber deflects attention away from the structural and political issues that enable fighting in hockey and places it upon the struggle of particular individuals trying to live their hockey dreams in a culture that encourages violence.

Wyshynski suggests that the film is “supportive of hockey fighting.” If this is the case, it is worth questioning if it is appropriate to promote the work of people who participate in the injurious practice of fighting? I would argue no. There is a difference between depicting violence to critique (positively or negatively) that act, and depicting it simply to justify and/or glorify the violence.

However, perhaps Goon is not as pro-fighting as it seems at first glance? Gary Joyce of the Globe and Mail has perhaps the most intriguing and nuanced reaction to the film. Firstly, like Courtney, he acknowledges the film’s problematic timing:

But the filmmakers may have badly misread the zeitgeist in not realizing that, these days, showing hockey violence as a barrel of laughs might seem entirely tasteless, given the deaths last year of three NHL tough guys.

Joyce, like other reviewers, recognizes Goon‘s uncouth hilarity. However, he sees a deeper hint of darkness to the film that goes unacknowledged in other reviews that I have read:

And the movie is not simple-minded: While the first half is cringe-worthy in its celebration of mindless on-ice violence, Ross Rhea’s arrival ambushes all who haven’t walked out. He is the darkest character ever in hockey on the screen. When he offers a soliloquy about his brutal trade, the film dissolves from an action cartoon into film noir. A cataclysmic end awaits him – he knows it and, tired of it all, he looks forward to it. . . .

Goon could have been enough to get even the coldest souls to shout “too soon.” But I would argue the film is saved from that by Schreiber’s portrayal of Ross Rhea. . . .

What Goon gets right is what strikes fans as counterintuitive: The game’s toughest characters are not its numbest numbskulls, but rather often the smartest guys in the dressing room, and certainly the most self-aware. NHL stars inhabit a world of entitlement and can coast for millions until their next contract year. The enforcer is there for one thing and when he can longer do that one thing, he is no longer there.

Joyce sees a dark undertone to the film that counters its seemingly humorous look at fighting and male hockey culture. This is how I feel about Slap Shot, a humorous film that, I believe, has more serious underlying social critiques. And if this is the case, then I absolutely support the film and the timing of its release – for critical examinations of hockey culture and its promotion of violence are desperately needed right now at a popular level.

However, Joyce seems to be alone in his reading of Goon. So perhaps he is misguided in his interpretation. Or perhaps the film is too subtle in its ideological stance to make a clearly decipherable statement about hockey violence. Either way, unlike other commentators, Joyce has convinced me that Goon may be more than a humorous celebration of hockey fighting – and that alone makes me keen to watch it as soon as possible.

I will end with one more quotation from Joyce’s review, which points to the potential value of films about controversial topics and offers an intriguing interpretation of Goon:

But watching Goon and its Ross Rhea character drives home the point that the death of a tough guy is not so much more grisly and terrible than his life, especially when he drops the gloves for the last time. And in that aspect, Goon’s a cautionary tale that the Canadian Safety Association should endorse.

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About markdavidnorman
Mark is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, where he researches sociocultural issues in sport and physical cultures. He is also a life-long hockey fan, becoming obsessed with the sport at a young age and cheering for the Vancouver Canucks for over two decades. In addition to his work at Hockey in Society, Mark has been active as a fan hockey blogger for over three years. Mark has worked as a Research Assistant at York University (Toronto, ON) and the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto. He has presented his research at a number of academic conferences, including the Annual Conference for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, and been published in the Sociology of Sport Journal.

8 Responses to “Goon”: A Controversial (and Potentially Important) Film

  1. Pingback: NHL Blog Beat – Saturday, March 3, 2012. | Spectors Hockey

  2. Paul Busch says:

    I have not seen the film yet, but intend to so I can potentially comment on it in my blog – http://itsnotpartofthegame.blogspot.com/. I’m firmly against fighting and was disappointed in the release of Goon, but I keep telling myself, “it’s only a movie”. Although filmed before the deaths of 3 NHL enforcers, it was still referred to by the director as a “love letter to the hockey enforcer”. I suspect that pro-hockey fans will love it, and not get the emotional and physical toll taken by the enforcer. Anti-fighting fans will likely either avoid it, or try not to enjoy it because of the message.

    It’s disheartening to me that the NHL’s image in many markets, both in Canada and the U.S., is defined by fighting and Goon simply reinforces that. In a simplistic world the NHL and NHLPA would ask themselves, “do I want fans who come only for the fights, or do I want those who love the game of hockey”. I can only hope that they would choose correctly.

  3. Jack Horgan says:

    Wow, what a funny article. You folks take yourselves way too seriously, but I do appreciate all the cerebrial attention you’re giving Goon — though the brainwork is likely misplaced.

    • I don’t think it’s a case of us (or me, in the case of this post) taking ourselves seriously; rather, I think it’s us/me taking Goon, and on a much broader level art and popular media, seriously. As for bringing attention to the film, I am very pleased if this post accomplishes that. All I hope is that the film’s audience watches it with a critical and intelligent eye, which certainly does not mean that they cannot enjoy it – I have the same hope for any piece of media or art that is popularly consumed.

      If you care to engage in respectful dialogue or debate about the film, or the issues raised by it, I am certainly happy for this comment section to be a forum for that.

  4. Pingback: Understanding Goon: Nice Guys Finish First « Hockey in Society

  5. I have seen the film, and I will say that the Globe and Mail guy is right. People are going to look at this film from the surface, at the marketing, and say that it is simply a film that glorifies violence and ENDORSES the role of fighting and enforcers in hockey. Those people aren’t looking past the surface. When the director said it’s a love letter to enforcers, I believe it is, not because it says “great job guys, keep up the good work,” but moreso saying “I realize what you have to go through and what your expectations are.” In that way it is truly a love letter.

    Anyways, the film brutally highlights the toll being an enforcer takes on a man. Over the course of the movie Sean William Scott slowly but surely acquires scars and bruises and broken bones, until by the time he finally matches up with Rhea he looks like he shouldn’t even be playing at all. The film is definitely subtle and very reserved in the way that it delivers its messages, hiding themes and statements behind humor, such as when the goalie Belchior famously says “Rule one, don’t touch my percocets, rule two, do you have any percocets?” Jay Baruchel plays a character that in many ways highlights the fact that fighting is mostly only enjoyed by the worst and scummiest type of person in the arena, overgrown manchildren and scumbags.

    Sean William Scott’s character, Doug Glatt, also is shown to not pursue the idea of hitting and fighting people for a living, it’s thrust upon him after a fight in the stands defending his brother. He’s consistently shown to not like fighting, apologizing for hurting people unless they try to hurt his friends or, later on, his teammates. His character even develops something of a Christ complex, willfully allowing himself to be beaten because he feels he did something wrong.

    In the penultimate game we watch the ultimate toll on Doug. He takes a slapshot to the face to save the game, and then uses his battered face to keep the puck out of the net for 10 seconds as sticks are whacked in his face and a player uses his skate to step on his weak ankle. The result of all of this is a painkiller prescription and accolades from his teammates for taking a puck to the face. No one is worried about if he’s alright, just that he got the win because he’s “just a goon.” And as it’s hammered constantly throughout the entire movie to him, from Ross Rhea to Xavier Leflamme’s character, goons are not hockey players.

    I think the scene that best sums up the movie is a dinner scene between Doug, his brother, and his parents after a hockey game where he fights Laraque. His parents are dismissive and disapprove of his profession, calling it a hobby and asking when he’ll become a teacher. Doug says that’s not going to happen because he is stupid, dimwitted, and he’ll never become those things. But he is strong, and he can protect people, and that affords him an opportunity in hockey. Kids buy his jersey, with his name on their back, and cheer him on, he has a place. He basically tells his parents they should accept him for being stupid, and his brother for being gay, and be proud of him. His dad then says that his jersey may as well say security on the back and, presumably, leaves his sons life. This movie is much more nuanced than it gives credit for, and in a way brings two camps to a crossroad.

  6. Is there a reason my prior comment didn’t show up?

    • Sorry Nick, I set it up so I have to approve the first comment posted by any individual user – after that, you can have at ‘em and it will be posted immediately. It’s basically a check to prevent slanderous or insulting comments – mostly unnecessary, but it saves the odd racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. diatribe from appearing in the comments. You’re approved, so all your comments should appear from here on in. Thanks for checking out the site and sharing your views!

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