Mystery, Alaska


Russell Crowe on ice.

Russell Crowe on ice.

(1999) Sports (Hollywood) Russell Crowe, Ron Eldard, Burt Reynolds, Hank Azaria, Maury Chaykin, Colm Meaney, Mary McCormack, Lolita Davidovich, Ryan Northcott, Michael Buie, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Mike Myers, Michael McKean, Adam Beach, Judith Ivey, Beth Littleford . Directed by Jay Roach

From then-TV flavor of the month David E. Kelley comes the town of Mystery, a small settlement amid the magnificent scenery of Alaska. There isn’t much to do there, so an awful lot of fornicating goes on. There is also a weekly hockey game that involves the young men of the town playing against one another on the town pond. The wide open space of the pond breeds tremendous skaters, guys who take flight on ice.

It also attracts the attention of Sports Illustrated writer Charlie Danner (Azaria), who is actually an ex-townie who was never well-liked. He calls them the best pond-hockey players in the world, and arranges a game with the NHL’s New York Rangers (like that would happen). And, predictably, this energizes the town and it’s somewhat quirky inhabitants.

There’s the passionate, but somewhat befuddled lawyer (Chaykin) who sits on the town’s hockey committee, and loves Mystery perhaps more than anyone else. There’s the crusty but good-hearted mayor (Meaney). There’s the curmudgeonly judge who wants nothing to do with the game (Reynolds). There’s also the libidinous defenseman (Eldard) who has more cojones than sense. Finally, there’s Sheriff John Biebe (Crowe), who is a veteran of the Saturday game recently demoted, now the reluctant coach of the team.

There aren’t a lot of ladies in the cast and most of them are either supportive and long-suffering (McCormack) or bored and unfaithful (Davidovich). The fact that hockey was so central to the plot was probably the biggest reason this movie did so poorly at the American box office which is a shame – the movie deserved a better fate.

This being a sports underdog movie, the overall outcome is more or less predictable. Director Jay Roach (both of the Austin Powers movies) has assembled a fine cast. Reynolds, for example, was just settling in to becoming a great character actor after years of floundering in lead roles after his glory years. Crowe shows some of the qualities that would elevate him in movies such as The Insider and Gladiator, but here he’s not quite as luminous as he would become in those breakout roles.

The success of Mystery, Alaska lies in creating a mood, and that is done rather well. Take away the unbelievable scenario and the sports-film clichés and you’d have a mighty good movie. Those obstacles, alas, are too difficult to overcome and this becomes just a pretty good movie instead of a great one which given its cast it could have been.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie’s got heart. Reynolds, Crowe and Azaria have some fine moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The premise is preposterous. Too many clichés spoil this broth.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of rough language and a fair amount of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mike Myers’ character of Donnie Shulzhoffer is reportedly a gentle spoof of legendary Canadian hockey commentator Don Cherry.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.9M on a $28M production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

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