Kelley's script for Mystery, Alaska (co-authored by Sean O'Byrne) takes that level of eccentricity to a geographical and spiritual extreme. The film revives the hackneyed Rocky formula, setting a lopsided hockey match within a remote, self-contained hamlet where the members of a tiny population all have to wear multiple hats and still keep neighborly ties intact. The story concerns the town's chief source of identity and pride: so-called "Saturday games," in which local men divide into teams and play pond hockey for the locals. When a prodigal son (Hank Azaria) of Mystery shows up with a television network offer to bring the New York Rangers in for a televised match against the homegrown team, the town fathers agree. Coaching falls to the town sheriff, John Biebe (Russell Crowe), an admirable man and a longtime player recently bumped from the team. John, however, doesn't want the job: everyone knows the real coach in those parts is Judge Burns (Burt Reynolds), but he wants no part of it either. All of that changes after a sad tragedy forces everyone to reevaluate their positions and pull together in order to beat the Rangers.
Following the success of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Jay Roach proves to be an able director of drama, swift action, and low-key, character-driven comedy not unlike that in Benton's Nobody's Fool. He has to deal with some pure corn at the end, but Roach pulls it off and guides the actors to and through far better moments. --Tom Keogh
A small town in the frozen North of Alaska, Mystery loves its hockey beyond all reason. The famed "Saturday Game," played each week with religious fervor, has been brought to the pages of Sports Illustrated by a Mysterian (Hank Azaria) who has left the town for bigger and better things -- although it may be because everyone in town says he plays hockey "like a homosexual" (this is an example of the surprisingly frank and profane language Mysterians like to use, which can be jarring in what is otherwise a sweet movie).
The team, led by John Biebe (Russell Crowe in a nice understated performance), is your typical bunch of loveable small-town lugs, each given either one defining characteristic (babe hound, son struggling with sense of inadequacy, hot young prodigy nervous about playing with the "big boys," etc.) or is mere entertaining window dressing. Otherwise content with the local fame brought by playing in the Saturday game, the guys are exhilirated and terrified to learn that the NHL wants the New York Rangers (at the time, a good team!) to visit Mystery to play the locals as a publicity stunt.
Biebe, who is also the town sheriff, is our lens into this quirky town going through this tumultuous development. A fixture of the Saturday Game for years, he is surprisingly demoted and asked to coach. One of his best players 'accidentally' shoots a representative from Price World, a Wal-Mart clone. Another player cuckolds the mayor of the town. And Azaria returns to make overtures to Biebe's wife. The tranquil little burg has never seen such excitement.
All of this unfolds in a lighthearted manner and builds to the "big game" against the Rangers -- which is only brought about by the untimely demise of a lovable local resident.
The game is handled very well, with the proper "underdog" notes played, but not overly so. The hockey action flows quickly, and feels like a game rather than someone filming a pretend game (a common problem in sports movies -- the action is not realistic enough). One problem - we rarely see Russell Crowe actually skate, which undercuts his status as the team leader and reminds us that he's a Hollywood star in a hockey film.
Perhaps the movie's most inspired moment is the mayor's unique way of invoking Mystery's home-ice advantage during the national anthem (with a hilarious cameo by Little Richard - yes, you heard me). Watch also for a great cameo by Mike Meyers, who has worked with director Jay Roach on the Austin Powers films.
In the end, all loose ends are tied up nicely . . . and perhaps too conveniently for some. Nothing in the movie is a great shock, but that's life in a small town for you.
While in many respects a good family movie, the language and humor is definitely not for younger viewers. And the "romantic" overtures of Skank, the team horn-dog, can be quite shocking to some. Still, a good movie and a fun time.
Mystery, Alaska, population 633, is a town obsessed with hockey. From the time they're children, every Mystery boy's dream is to be a member of the town's unnamed hockey team in the weekly "Saturday game." Through a sequence of events only slightly farfetched, the Mystery team is scheduled for an exhibitition game with the visiting New York Rangers, an event of only slightly less importance to this hockey-struck town than the Second Coming. One of the many great things about this movie is the town's reaction to news of the impending game. They're not awestruck by the Rangers, the visiting demi-gods; their first reaction is, "Can we win?" If Mystery plays, they intend to win. The Rangers might be big league American hockey, but Mystery has faith in its boys. It knows they're great even if the rest of the world doesn't.
The movie is about how the town and its inhabitants are affected by the upcoming game. The game itself, though perfectly realized in the film, is almost incidental. Colm Meaney (late of Star Trek: The Next Generattion and Deep Space Nine) plays the town mayor who discovers his wife (Lolita Davidovich) is sleeping with a member of the hockey team. Hank Azaria is Charles Danner, the home town boy who was never respected growing up, became a reporter out in the great big world, brings back to Mystery the NEW YORK RANGERS....and finds he's still not respected. Donna Biebe (Mary McCormack) is the girl Charles loved in high school, now married to team captain and town sheriff John Biebe (Crowe). Burt Reynolds, who still has it, and in spades, after all these years, plays town judge Walter Burns. Walter as a young man wasn't good enough for the Saturday game, a fact he's never forgotten and a source of conflict with his son, who's made the current team. But Walter was good enough for minor league hockey in the lower 48, making him the perfect choice to coach the team for and through the big game. He's the only person in town who really understands North American hockey. For his own reasons, he refuses.
Then there's Russell Crowe as John Biebe. The big game comes at the tail end of John's career. After 13 years in the Saturday game - a Mystery record - he's cut from the team just before news of the Rangers' visit hits town. And the town fathers, whose most solemn duties involve administering the hockey team, don't want him back. A man of quiet strength but not good at expressing his softer emotions, John doesn't know how to tell his wife how much he loves her when he sees Charles flirting, and her flirting back. The way he figures out finally to do that is both inventive and touching.
Though this movie "stars" Russell Crowe, it's not a star driven vehicle, it's an ensemble piece. And while Russell is wonderful as John Biebe, for my money the best performance in the film is Ron Eldard as "Skank" Marden, Mystery hockey player and dedicated fornicator. The scene where Skank appears on the mayor's doorstep one frozen night to apologize to the man he's cuckolded is, I think, the highlight of the film. It's fascinating to watch the unexpected decency, sensitivity, and dignity emerge from what til then seemed an indecent, shallow, undignified man.
The hockey game footage is convincing - thrilling, actually. Russell learned to ice skate for this role, and, with the help of some careful editing, looks pretty darn good on the ice. Numerous Rangers play themselves.
Mystery, Alaska has been called "Rocky On Ice" and that's a fair description. Yes, the film deals with a hockey game, but that's not what makes it special. This isn't a dumb, gimmicky, braindead hockey flick like The Mighty Ducks. It's a character driven, imaginative, well-acted drama....that happens to work within the framework of a story about a hockey game. By the time the Rangers arrive in Mystery you're totally on the home team's side, rooting for them because you've come to care for the Mystery boys, and respect the sacrifices they, and the town as a whole, have made for this game. Like Rocky, Mystery, Alaska shows you don't need a huge budget to make a good movie when you have a great script, solid direction, good actors, and the film possesses that quality indefinable but impossible to mistake or ignore: "heart."
So, can a team of pond hockey players from Mystery, Alaska REALLY beat the New York Rangers? Watch this movie and find out.
The small close-knit town of Mystery, Alaska(pop.633), is obssesed with the game of Hockey. Read more