Red Army


The most dominant five-man hockey unit in history.

The most dominant five-man hockey unit in history.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Viacheslav Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladislav Tretiak, Vladimir Pozner, Vladimir Krutov, Felix Nechepore, Anatoli Karpov, Tatiana Tarasova. Directed by Gabe Polsky

There is always talk among sports fans about the greatest team in history of their chosen sports. For hockey fans, they will endlessly debate whether the greatest team was the Montreal Canadiens of Rocket Richard or Jean Beliveau, or the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, or the New York Islanders of Mike Bossy. However, there are many who are absolutely certain that the Soviet Red Army team of the 70s and 80s was the most dominant and the most highly skilled team to ever take to the ice.

There is a good deal of merit to that argument. This was a team that possessed the best goaltender on earth in Vladislav Tretiak, as well as the greatest player in the world – Viacheslav Fetisov, who was in many senses the best defenseman to ever play the game, including Bobby Orr. Fetisov became the face of Soviet hockey; a fast skater, disciplined defender, and maybe as smart a player who ever played the game.

The Soviets played a game in which even the NHL’s best at the time were left chasing their snow. NHL hockey of the period was brutish and slow compared to the grace and artistry of the Soviet players; there were few North American skaters who could keep up with the Soviets. They dominated international competition of the day, spurred on by their embarrassing defeat at the hands of the severely undermanned American team in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Considering that less than a month before the Olympics they’d manhandled the American team in Madison Square Garden by a score of 10-3, it truly was a miracle on ice. The Soviets didn’t believe in miracles and the fall-out was severe.

Behind the grace and artistry was a relentless system that demanded commitment and sacrifice. While much of the style of play of the Soviets was developed by the jovial Anatoli Tarasov, the genial coach who was beloved by his players was dismissed by more political elements within the Politburo and replaced with the icy Viktor Tikhanov. The Soviet players to a man despised their coach who was cold, unfeeling and treated his players as little more than game pieces, denying one player the request to return home to be with his dying father who eventually passed away.

This documentary is told primarily from the perspective of Slava Fetisov who went from being the face of Soviet hockey to a political liability when he spoke out openly against conditions that forced brutal workouts leaving players “pissing blood” as he puts it. Slava, who today is the Minister of Sport in Putin’s Russia, is constantly working his cell phone and often interrupts the interview to take a call or a text. I’m sure Polsky wondered if Errol Morris ever had to put up with this.

The footage of the Soviet hockey team in action is absolutely compelling and of course American hockey fans will still love revisiting the final moments of the Miracle on Ice game in which sportscaster Al Michaels screamed “Do you believe in miracles? YES!!!!” I don’t know about you but that still send shivers down my spine.

It is the footage of the Soviet team though that I found even more interesting as American audiences rarely got to see them in action. The Soviet philosophy was to have five man units that worked together rather than the North American philosophy of having separate forward and defense units. The result was the Big Five, a line-up of Fetisov and Alex Kasatonov on the blue line, and up front Sergei Makharov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov. Makharov and Larionov played early on for the San Jose Sharks, my favorite hockey team, and were part of the team that upset the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs. They are a lasting part of my hockey fan past.

This is a documentary about a hockey team, sure, but there’s more to it than that. We see what life was like in a postwar Russia, rebuilding from the destruction leveled against it by the Nazis in which families were crammed into apartments that we would consider studio apartments meant for a single person. A system in which fish was only available one day a week – “Fish Thursday,” Fetisov chuckles. It was a day most looked forward to.

Fetisov is often acerbic and has a sense of humor that is rather dry. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion except when talking about the car accident that took the life of his younger brother, an accident where he was behind the wheel for. He quickly deflects further questioning on the subject; it’s clearly something he doesn’t like talking about. He went through some difficult times; after quitting the National Team in protest of Tikhanov’s treatment of his players, he was briefly jailed and beaten, his family threatened. He talks about these things dispassionately and without any rancor.

These days Fetisov is an important cog in the Russian sports wheel. He was one of the main players in getting the Winter Olympics to Sochi and is proud of the games that were held there. He is a supporter of Putin’s government, understandably so since he has flowered and prospered as a politician under Putin. He is also clearly proud of his achievements as an athlete, while deflecting praise about his stands against the abuses of the Soviet system in ice hockey that led to players being allowed to play in the NHL, albeit with much of their salaries going to the Soviet government. He seems to have a strong streak of justice in him; one wonders what he thinks of the Russian involvement in the Ukraine although I suspect he wouldn’t say anything negative about any of Putin’s policies. I might be wrong on that score, however; Fetisov is used to speaking out against that which he disagrees with.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful archival hockey footage. Interesting peek behind the Iron Curtain.
REASONS TO STAY: Fetisov plays his emotional cards very close to the vest. Hockey fans may end up being disappointed at the socio-political content; non-hockey fans may end up disappointed at the hockey content.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s really nothing here that isn’t suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Werner Herzog was one of the producers of this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Miracle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Film Library begins!

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Goon


Rock 'em sock 'em robots.

Rock ’em sock ’em robots.

(2011) Sports Comedy (Magnet) Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Liev Schreiber, Alison Pill, Eugene Levy, Marc-Andre Grondin, Kim Coates, Nicholas Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Jonathan Cherry, Ricky Mabe, George Tchortov, Karl Graboshas, Larry Woo, Stephen Sim, Ellen David, David Paetkau, Dave Wheeler, Sarah Scheffer. Directed by Michael Dowse

To those who know me, it’s no secret that ice hockey is my favorite sport. The grace, the speed, the skill appeals to me. Perhaps it is my half-Canadian heritage that instills the love of this great sport into my genetic make-up. Hockey, after all, is part of the Canadian DNA.

The flip side of the sport is the fighting. Goons, the vernacular for enforcers who are there to act as nuclear deterrents essentially, are the brawn of the sport. They rarely get the ink of the goal scorers but are as respected if not more so in the locker room of those teams they toil for and let’s face it, many fans love them more than the skill players.

Doug Klatt (Scott) is a bouncer in a New England bar whose father (Levy), a doctor, is disappointed in his son’s career direction and is not shy about expressing that disappointment. Doug’s best friend, Pat (Baruchel) is a hockey nut. While Doug and Pat are at a minor league game, Doug gives a beat down to a player who ventures into the stands. This catches the notice of an opposing coach who gives Doug a try-out even though Doug can’t skate.

Doug learns to skate and becomes an enforcer. After a few weeks he becomes a star goon in the league and is eventually promoted to Halifax to protect Xavier LaFlamme (Grondin), once a highly coveted prospect in the NHL whose game has deteriorated due to drug use, ego and attitude. Well, there’s that but also LaFlamme has also lost his nerve after being badly injured in a hit by Ross “the Boss” Rhea (Schreiber). Now the phenom avoids contact at nearly any cost. That generally doesn’t lead to a long career in the NHL.

Doug is a sweet guy at heart who has never really felt like he belonged to anything in his life, but now has found a purpose. He’s even attracted a girl, Eva (Pill) who is a self-described slut willing to give up her promiscuity for Doug. Things are going well for Doug  despite his father’s continued disapproval but you know that a confrontation with Rhea – who happens to be Doug’s idol – is inevitable.

Baruchel co-wrote this with Evan Goldberg, both of whom also co-wrote Superbad. This script really isn’t up to that level, being a bit more of a niche project, but it fills that niche admirably. Much of this is due to the performances of Schreiber and Scott. Schreiber plays an enforcer reaching the end of his career with a certain amount of cynicism, knowing that he has been exploited. Schreiber gives the character not only the toughness that such a character would naturally own but also with the intelligence and thoughtfulness that is a Schreiber trademark.

Scott’s character isn’t terribly bright and is socially awkward. He’s kind of an anti-Stiffler, not very confident with women and not terribly sharp. He tends to punch first and ask questions later. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t basically a nice guy. Although there’s an enormous amount of gay slurs in the movie (reflecting a homophobic sensibility in sports in general not just hockey) Doug stands up for his gay brother Ira (Paetkau) as much as any good brother would.

This is the best hockey movie since Miracle and maybe since Slap Shot which it is more akin to and could be said to be the spiritual godfather to the film, although it is actually based on the memoirs of real-life minor hockey league goon Doug Smith. I do have issues with movies that glorify the violence in hockey – maybe I’m in the minority (and I don’t think I am) but I don’t love hockey for the fights but for the speed and grace of the game, the skills of the players and that the game hasn’t been overwhelmed by egos in the same way other major sports have.

Still, I was entertained by the movie and even though I will admit a bias towards the sport, I believe the movie will be entertaining even for those who aren’t particular fans of the game. I’m not sure it will make a lot of new fans of the sport but you never know. Game on.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best hockey movies in recent years. Scott and Schreiber deliver strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goon-like players are becoming an endangered breed in modern hockey.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of swearing, plenty of hockey violence, some fairly strong sexual content and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former NHL players Mike Ricci and Georges Laraque make cameo appearances in the film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: In Power Play Mode the viewer can access features and commentary enhancing what’s onscreen when the Power Play icon is onscreen. There’s also an HDNet featurette, a bloopers reel and a sit-down interview with Scott and Baruchel. There’s also some video hockey cards featuring characters from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.5M on an unknown production budget; very likely made a tidy profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slap Shot

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Back to the Future

Tooth Fairy


Tooth Fairy

Even a hockey setting couldn't save this movie.

(2010) Family Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Dwayne Johnson, Ashley Judd, Julie Andrews, Steven Merchant, Ryan Sheckler, Seth McFarlane, Billy Crystal, Chase Ellison, Destiny Grace Whitlock, Ryan Sheckler, Brandon T. Jackson. Directed by Michael Lembeck

The belief of a child is precious and powerful at once. Attacking that belief – whether it is in the infallibility of its parents, or the existence of Santa Claus is a profound turning point in their lives.

Derek Thompson (Johnson) is a goon on a minor league hockey team in Lansing, Michigan who has garnered the nickname of “Tooth Fairy” for all the dental work he’s sent opposing players for (although I have to point out that no self-respecting hockey player would have a nickname that contained the word “Fairy”).

Off the ice he’s an affable enough sort, although he’s a bit of a self-centered jerk. His girlfriend Carly (Judd) has two kids that he has trouble relating to. Randy (Ellison) is a sullen teenaged annoyance who gets what little pleasure he gets out of life from his music. Tess (Whitlock) is a bit of a dreamer and Derek, who has been jerked around by life, having never had the talent to go very far in the game he loves, tells her that there’s no tooth fairy and even steals the money from under her  pillow. Now that’s a douchebag. It also gets him the heave-ho from the only good thing in his life – his relationship with Carly.

Well, the powers that be hear about this and boy, are they miffed. Derek is sentenced to spend a week as a tooth fairy (apparently there are a whole bunch of ‘em) in penance for trying to attack the belief of a child. Those powers that be, they don’t mess around.

There Derek meets Lily (Andrews), the head fairy which is kind of an executive position as it turns out; Tracy (Merchant), an adenoidal fairy without wings who is Derek’s case worker, and finally Jerry (Crystal), a kind of Q Division fairy who gives Derek all sorts of gadgets such as a horn that scares off cats and a shrinking potion. These fairies, they’ve got a hell of an R&D department.

At first Derek is just there to serve out his time and doesn’t take much care in doing his job properly until he begins to learn what tooth fairies mean to kids…and what kids mean to them. The arrogant, selfish Derek begins to morph into a kinder, gentler Derek. But is it too little, too late?

After a promising start in action films, Johnson moved into family-friendly movies like this one. He’s become quite a staple in them and his easygoing personality make him a natural, plus his notoriety as a former WWE wrestler makes him even more kid-friendly. I like Johnson in roles that utilize his comic abilities, but his formidable skills as an action hero have been seriously missed.

He’s got a pretty decent cast behind him; Andrews and Crystal certainly perform as advertised, but their roles are brief and are in fact little more than cameos (Crystal goes uncredited in the film). Merchant has a more sizable role but his eager beaver caseworker comes off a little too forced, a little too bland.

Frankly, I’m surprised Disney didn’t snap this up; they’ve made these sorts of movies for decades and nobody does it better than they do. I think the movie could have used the Disney touch a little bit; still, Johnson is just so damned likable that you can’t help but like him in the movie, even though he’s a bit of an arrogant prick for much of it.

Kids will probably love the movie for the whimsy shown with the tooth fairies and some of that is actually pretty fun. Unfortunately, even the charismatic Johnson can’t save this movie from an overabundance of kid flick clichés.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock on ice. Need I say more? Also some nice cameos from Crystal and Andrews.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Typical family fare that Disney does so much better

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words and a bit of rude humor on the family-friendly side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Billy Crystal’s first live action movie role in eight years.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a sing-along feature with Johnson and Merchant called “Fairy-oke” and a kid’s workout video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.3M on a $48M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Barney’s Version