To say that fighting is hockey’s worst-kept secret is a bit too optimistic – for many who play or follow the sport, it’s a point of pride. Goon is a raucous ode to the brawny subculture of hockey brawls, a surprisingly heartfelt sports comedy that approaches its problematic subject with brutal honesty, then dares the audience to cast judgement. It helps that the film’s hero, Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), is such a mensch. Already making a living with his fists as a bouncer, Doug stumbles into a new career opportunity while attending a semipro hockey game, defending his mouthy friend (Jay Baruchel) from an irate player climbing into the stands. A coach quickly sees Doug’s potential as an “enforcer” – a player specializing in physical intimidation – and signs him up with a minor league team in Halifax where he’s to serve as an on-ice bodyguard for the squad’s petulant but talented star prospect, Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin).
Exceedingly sweet by nature, Doug is initially baffled by the way the crowd prizes his pugilistic skills. But the game gives him the opportunity to re-cast himself a paragon of self-sacrifice – a transformation of purpose beautifully captured by Baruchel and Evan Goldberg’s warm yet un-treacly script. It’s easy to see Doug as a broad parody of overachieving lugs like Rocky Balboa and Rudy (the latter is referenced in one of the movie’s many terrific one-liners), but Scott’s magnificently droll performance doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the character. He carries a sense of painful self-awareness even as the team’s play begins to improve and through his guileless pursuit of Alison Pill’s hockey groupie, who rebuffs his offerings of chocolates and official stuffed mascots by straight-up telling him that she prefers to sleep with lots of men.
But whereas relentless misanthropy might work for a character study like Big Fan, Baruchel and Goldberg are clever enough to realize that Goon most resembles a Western with its familiar archetypes and unapologetic attitude towards violence. That’s no more apparent than in the introduction of Ross “The Boss” Rhea (a wickedly good Liev Schreiber), a legendary enforcer with a reputation for cheap, career-ending hits who’s looking for one last scalp as he slouches towards retirement. His presence turns the film somewhat unnecessarily toward the defense of certain forms of violence, but at least Scott nails the big speech where he justifies his thuggery as a noble responsibility to protect others against wanton makers of mayhem like Rhea. Luckily, director Michael Dowse doesn’t feel a greater need to moralize. Despite its lip service to the uplifting conventions of the sports underdog narrative, Goon is fittingly content to let Scott’s fists do most of the talking.