Published September 1, 1999
Mystery, Alaska, directed by Jay Roach, aspires to be the Rocky of hockey. A small-town hockey team from Alaska (surely they must mean Canada?) takes on the mighty New York Rangers on the neighborhood ice and, against all expectations, goes the distance with them. If you get a lump in your throat when Rocky staggers away from Apollo Creed, battered but unbeaten, and cries out for his Adrian, you should get at least half a lump from the equivalent moment here, which may or may not record an upset victory but which undoubtedly confirms the heart and the guts of the Mysterians, and their never-questioned status as the very foundation on which the great game of hockey is built.
Not that the film does not have problems. The climactic hockey match is rather stagey and allowed to go on for too long, which takes time away from the development of some of the film’s off-ice drama. In particular, Burt Reynolds, who plays a judge and former hockey star skeptical about the whole match-up (“Two things we’ve always had in Mystery,” he says: “our dignity and our illusions. I suggest we cling to both”) is underused. It is too easy to bring him in as coach at the last minute, and his troubled relationship with his family—a resentful wife, a hockey-playing son afraid he can’t live up to dad’s expectations and a daughter going with the team’s youngest star, whom she decides she needs to sleep with—is sketched in so lightly as to be all-but incomprehensible.
We also see, I think, too little of those excellent actors, Colm Meaney and Lolita Davidovich, who play the town’s mayor and his wife. Their marital troubles, like the judge’s family, are introduced only to be forgotten in the general hockey-mania, and the wife’s affair with the hockey team’s young Lothario, Matt “Skank” Martin (Ron Eldard), is treated far too casually to have any dramatic impact. “I play hockey and I fornicate because those are the two most fun things you can do in cold weather,” says Skank by way of apology to the mayor for cuckolding him. The mayor’s failure to react suggests that Skank’s moral imbecility is also that of the filmmakers.
Nor are these the only half-realized, soap-operaish elements. A young man (Hank Azaria) who went away from Mystery to become a sportswriter in the lower-48 is the one who brings the Rangers; but he is still resented for leaving, and his return stirs up the small-town’s politics and introduces more sexual intrigue. A beloved figure suffers an untimely but inspirational death, too, and all these things compete with the hockey for our moral involvement. Finally, the over-the-hill team captain, played by Russell Crowe, who returns from forced retirement to lead the boys on the ice for one last shot at glory is just a little too much of a cliché, but the hockey part of the movie, which is its major part, works—at least if you’re well-disposed to this kind of schmaltz and have nothing better to do.