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When Mystery, Alaska's amateur hockey team accepts a challenge to play against the New York Rangers, the entire population must put their petty differences aside and pull together as their small town becomes the center of a nationally televised event. Written by
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This movie is easy to bash because of its "underdog" formula, but this is one of the better spins I've ever seen put on it.
Mystery, Alaska is a small, ice-covered town that no one would ever have heard of were it not for former resident Charles Danner's (Hank Azaria) article on the "Saturday game" of hockey that has become a ritual in the town. Danner sings the town's hockey praises, likening their skating ability to that of "any team in the NHL," and the gods of fiction hear the call, arranging for an exhibition game between the New York Rangers and the Mystery players. This sets off storms of conflict and multiple subplots which give this film a depth normally not found in the genre. The hockey game itself is almost an afterthought, because while the players know how to play the game, they don't have the same mastery over their daily lives.
John Biebe (Russell Crowe) is the town sheriff and involuntarily-retired player from the Saturday game who is called upon to return to the team as their coach and as a player. His wife, Donna (Mary McCormack), is proud of the life she has built and slightly wistful about what the rest of the world would have held for her, but is content with what she has and does not live with her head in the clouds. Burt Reynolds is excellent as town judge Walter Burns, who must grapple with his teenage children, one of each gender, with the boy lacking the ambition Walter has for him, and the girl being a little too ambitious for his taste with her boyfriend. Colm Meany is the town Mayor who must deal with marital conflicts, and the remaining characters are what you'd expect to find in a closely-knit small town.
The game itself is more like something out of "The Air Up There" than any of the movies mentioned in the other reviews. In that movie, the Africans played basketball for much the same reason as the Mystery boys play hockey, and as in that movie, the talent pool from the area is rich enough for the pros to take more than a passing look at the players (two of the Mystery players wind up signing with the Rangers and playing for their minor-league outfit in Binghamton).
The players' main worry is that they'll get blown out by the Rangers, and shatter their illusions about their talent, but since the game is held on "their pond," where they believe "nobody beats them," they weren't about to back down. The Rangers, at first reluctant opponents who would rather have had some time with their families, get an early wake-up call in the game that causes them to remember why they played hockey in the first place, and take the game as seriously as a Stanley Cup final from then on. It is then that we see that while the Mystery players may lack the polish of the NHL, they are hardly outclassed.
As expected, the Zamboni makes a cameo, as does Mike Myers as a former player/announcer. The movie has the usual small-town hostility towards outsiders, including some ribald swipes at a female TV reporter, but throughout the movie, we see what makes this town tick, and how their commitment to hockey is one that every professional player should never lose. Sports may be a business, but in the end, the play is the thing, and this movie makes that point better than many of the better-known films that try to drive home the same point.
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