Hockey is a team sport where individuals shine. One important role for any team that isn't formalized in the NHL rulebook is that of the enforcer, or "goon." Wikipedia says a goon's job is to "respond to dirty or violent play by the opposition. When such play occurs, the enforcer is expected to respond aggressively, by fighting or checking the offender."
But what if the goon is a lovable goofball who just wants to make other people happy, a dumb teddy bear with an iron fist? American Pie alum Seann William Scott is that guy, and you can't help but root for him in Goon, the cult-classic sports movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix on August 15.
In the a 2011 comedy from director Michael Dowse and co-written by Evan Goldberg and supporting actor Jay Baruchel, Seann William Scott is Doug "The Thug" Glatt, cinema's best hockey player since Reggie Dunlop. An underachiever from wintry Massachusetts, Doug discovers a knack for fighting when he confronts a bigot over homophobic slurs. Instead of stepping into a UFC cage, he steps into the rink of minor league hockey, where he is destined to throw down with the grizzled veteran Ross "The Boss" Rhea (Liev Schrieber).
A kung fu movie disguised as a profane sports comedy, Goon packs a wallop of unexpected heart and soul. Though Doug looks like your high school bully, he is actually a kind person who just wants to make other people happy. That includes his team, for whom he has unconditional respect for even when they have none for him. That includes his Jewish parents, dissatisfied with Doug's inability for med school (and harbor regret over his gay brother, whom Doug loves). That includes Eva (Allison Pill), a hockey nut at the tail end of a relationship who openly admits to her flaws.
What lets Goon soar above most crass sports movies is the careful plotting and execution of Doug himself, a sympathetic underdog you come to believe deserves happiness of his own. Doug is violent, yes, but he's never menacing nor deranged. Rather, Doug merely accepts that he's a weapon deployed by others — fighting is the last thing he actually wants to do. What Doug wants and gets is purpose, and if that means bleeding for his team, then he'll bleed. Blood, by the way, has never looked better than in Goon. Hockey is a violent sport, and in Goon crimson liquid shoots off Doug's mouth like a geyser in tense moments that feel more gruesome than an '80s slasher.
The genuine brilliance of Goon comes from its similarities to martial arts movies. Doug, like most kung fu heroes, is a talented student whose physical gift thrusts him into greatness (though not without training). His opponent is the seasoned grandmaster, Schrieber's Ross Rhea, another goon with more years behind him than ahead of him. Behaving less like your typical villain and more like the wise sage of a Shaw Brothers classic, Ross isn't trying to cling to past glory. Instead, at 3 a.m. eating breakfast in a podunk bar, all Ross desires is a worthy opponent to help end his career. And he's found it in Doug. When the two meet, it's like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in hockey jerseys.
In 2020, Goon is admittedly a difficult film to accept wholesale as awareness of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is now more mainstream. In the summer of 2011, the same summer Goon premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, three enforcers in the NHL died stemming from complications of severe head trauma. When Goon got a sequel in 2017, Goon: Last of the Enforcers, it made no bones about the dangers Doug engages.
But on its own, Goon remains the rare sports movie that has all the emotional stakes of Rocky and Miracle and the crudeness of Slap Shot and Caddyshack. Its protagonist subverts all expectations to be a genuine gentle giant you want to see succeed. His mission not to win, but to find his place in a mean world is not only inspiring, it's damn hilarious. Even if you don't like hockey, Goon is a universal movie that can uplift the soul — even if it hurts.
Goon is streaming on Netflix until August 15.