Goon has an obvious antecedent in the Paul Newman comedy Slap Shot, yet their differences are stark. Both examine the divide between hockey as a sport of pure technical skill and the barbaric violence primarily defined by team enforcers. Slap Shot treats this as an aberration–blue-collar men venting frustration over their own inadequacy, to the delight of a hometown robbed of employment and looking for cheap thrills to occupy their minds. Goon, meanwhile, shows how enforcers have strategic value in a game as intimidation, distraction, even protection. Doug Glatt, the slow-witted yet unfailingly polite man recruited to a minor league team for his ability to fuck shit up good (played by Seann William Scott), definitely signifies the latter. His skating is rocky and many times he doesn’t quite comprehend his coach’s orders, but Doug understands the principle when he’s told to shadow a more proficient player (Marc-Andre Grondin), who has been in a downward spiral since being laid out by a legendary enforcer a few years prior. In a chance encounter with this same enforcer, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber with grizzled stubble and oily hair), Doug states, “I’m here to do whatever they need me to do.” Doug’s internalized comprehension is a foil to Slap Shot‘s desperation.
Consider how Michael Dowse positions his enforcers as gunslingers or samurai from classic films: many of the hockey fights begin with low angle, wide shots placing Doug and his latest challenge on opposing ends of the screen. Fights are fast and brutal, blood loss lovingly photographed and closeups occurring only after space has been established. Most involve Doug stepping in when his teammates are being bullied or when some meathead drops gay-bashing slurs (“Hey, my brother’s gay”). If he doesn’t knock out an opponent in a few hits, he’s more than willing to soak up punishment and win via stubbornness, like Rama in The Raid films. Another fight (a cameo from NHL player Georges Laraque) is done as friendly competition; a cordial ask and answer, punches done only as a way of testing ability. It’s all buildup to Doug and Ross, though: an aging veteran who wants to give one last good show, the upstart willing to oblige him. Their game is mostly a tease: Ross squashes Doug’s teammates and tricks him into instigation–a move which leads to the penalty box. Schreiber grins and taunts, playing Ross as a master entertainer. He waits for the third period before glancing to Doug and asking, “You ready, kid?” Cue drums. When their gloves come off, blood and teeth hit the ice.
The effect of Doug’s trials is a quiet, considerate reconstruction of masculinity. Scott, best known for playing swinging dick idiots in American Pie and Role Models, goes against type. He watches and listens to everyone around him, accepts them for who they are. The gay brother, the loudmouthed friend, the humorously sad teammates, the would-be girlfriend who has her own issues, even bitter, cynical Ross get supportive, nonjudgmental treatment. The suggestion is there’s still a place for traditional manhood, after the shock of feminism and gay rights (both of which were hinted at in Slap Shot) has set in. Overbearing machismo, and the resulting misogyny and bigotry, are shown the door. There’s a new enforcer in town.