The Rocket

The Rocket

Hockey ain't no game for sissies!

(2007) True Sports Drama (Palm) Roy Dupuis, Julie Le Breton, Stephen McHattie, Patrice Robitaille, Mike Ricci, Francois Langlois-Vallieres, Randy Thomas, Vincent Lacavalier, Sean Avery, Remy Girard, Pascal Dupuis, Ian Laperriere, Stephane Quintal. Directed by Claude Biname

Every sport has its Babe Ruth; a dominant figure who changes the nature of the game forever. However, once in awhile, a player comes along who not only changes the nature of his sport forever, he changes the world around him as well.

Maurice Richard (Dupuis) is the most dominant ice hockey player in his era. A gifted goal scorer, a rough customer and a talented playmaker, he has led the Montreal Canadiens to the upper echelon of the National Hockey League. His suspension for the remainder of the 1955 season after striking an official caused rioting in Montreal.

And yet he came from humble beginnings. As a teenager (Langlois-Vallieres) he worked in a factory by day and played junior league hockey at night. His exploits on the ice impressed young Lucille Norchet who would eventually become his wife (Le Breton). He also impresses scouts for the hometown Canadiens enough that he is given a tryout for the team which has been mired in a bout of underachievement for years. Their new coach, Dick Irvin (McHattie) wants winners. He doesn’t see any on his squad.

Watching Richard’s tryout, he realizes he has a player whose will to win is like nothing ever seen before in hockey. Although hockey experts caution Irvin against signing the young winger due to the number of injuries he’d suffered in the junior leagues, Irvin takes a chance and signs him. At first, it doesn’t look like a brilliant idea. Richard is inconsistent on the ice and when he breaks a leg during a game, it looks like the Canadiens got a lemon – a fragile player susceptible to injury.

But Richard does come back. Put on a line with Elmer Lach (Ricci) and Hector “Toe” Blake (Thomas), he becomes one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the game. His skills make him a target – the Rangers send out “Killer” Dill (Avery), a noted goon, to take him out of the game permanently but Richard is well able to defend himself.

Part of what makes him a target is his status as a French-Canadian. Back in the post-World War II era of the NHL – indeed, in all of hockey – French-Canadians were second class citizens. They were given separate caged-in seats to watch the game from at the Montreal Forum, and the players were the targets of racial slurs and excessive violence.

Richard’s skills made him one of the first French-speaking hockey players to acquire a mass following. He had a regular column in the Montreal daily newspaper that was a must-read for French-speaking citizens of the city. He criticized Clarence Campbell, commissioner of the NHL, for not administering discipline in the same way when French-Canadian players were involved. His columns were so inflammatory that eventually the Canadiens had to ask him to stop writing them or risk being fined by the league.

Richard is never paid very much, relatively speaking and feels it necessary to work at the same factory he did as a teenager during the summers when hockey is on hiatus. Supporting his family is very important to him and he is worried that if his hockey career comes to an end prematurely he won’t be able to do that. Still, despite the hardships, despite the injuries, even despite the abuse he perseveres to become the greatest hockey player of his time – and arguably ever.

Before Gretzky there was Richard and it’s hard for us Americans to comprehend what he means in the province of Quebec and specifically in Montreal. I suppose it’s very much like Michael Jordan in Chicago or Carl Yastrzemski in Boston but it’s much more than that. It goes beyond that adulation of an athlete – it’s almost a cultural thing. Richard is very much part of the identity of French Canada.

Before this movie was made, there was a four hour miniseries (in 1999 to be exact) about Richard that also starred Dupuis (who bears an uncanny facial resemblance to the Rocket) and much of this movie is taken from that mini-series. Director Biname does an admirable job with a microscopic budget (by Hollywood standards) and while the movie smacks of boosterism a little bit, there seems to have been an effort to make it as factual as possible. However, there are times when the low budget aspect of the movie shows onscreen which is unsettling.

Dupuis is stolid in playing Richard for the third time in his career. Richard was never the most charismatic of men – he preferred to lead quietly. That makes it difficult for Dupuis to truly grab your attention onscreen as he pretty much has to low-key it throughout. The same goes for Le Breton as Lucille; she never really has much to do other than being the faithful, loyal wife.

McHattie gets much more of a plum role as the fiery Coach Irvin. He brings the irascible coach to life, his belief in Richard helping the player achieve what he did. His is the most memorable performance of the movie. There are also a number of former and current NHL stars in the film, some having more prominent roles than others such as current Tampa Bay Lightning star Lacavalier as the Canadiens’ elegant star Jean Beliveau and former San Jose Shark Ricci as Richard’s linemate.

This isn’t the greatest hockey movie ever but it may very well be the most earnest. There is no doubt that Richard revolutionized the game and has left an indelible mark both on the NHL and on Canada; I would have liked to see a little more of the latter, but they do a great job on the former. Most Americans wouldn’t know a slap shot from a wrist shot but this is a movie that offers insight to the Canadian soul, particularly her French speakers.

WHY RENT THIS: As much of a look back at cultural and class inequalities of the era as a full-blown hockey movie. Decent hockey sequences give you an idea of how dominant Richard really was.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poor production values are noticeable in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some hockey violence and quite a bit of blood as a result, a smattering of foul language and yes, there’s smoking which let us remember was common back then. Get over it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was reviewed by Richard himself shortly before his death in order to maintain as much accuracy as possible.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 22 minute feature on the real Richard and his impact not only on the game of hockey but on Canada and the province of Quebec in particular. It’s a pretty extensive piece with interviews with contemporaries of Richard as well as current NHL players.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Hangover Part II

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