Here’s a shocker: What might’ve seemed an ill-advised sequel to a surprisingly not-bad little hockey comedy is … surprisingly not bad! In fact, in some ways Goon: Last of the Enforcers actually manages to improve upon its forebear, connecting on jabs at a rate roughly equal to that of the earlier film but this time — if you’ll pardon yet more in the way of this figurative pugilism — mixing in some gut punches, too.
It does all this, first, by recognizing the strengths of the original Goon, chief among them a kind of provincial humility. If you’d worried that Last of the Enforcers would succumb to the temptation, so typical of sequels, to go bigger, grander, glossier — say, to strain all semblance of believability by thrusting lovable-dimwit hero Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) onto the NHL stage — fear not. In something like a stroke of genius, the movie does exactly the inverse, beginning with news of a big-league lockout that has forced some of the top talent down, onto teams in the sticks. Thus does rising star/loose cannon/villain Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell) wind up with the hotshots from Reading, Pa., which becomes fodder for the kind of punchline Goon excels at: The Keystone State burgh, one player on our Halifax Highlanders claims, is populated solely by “translucent Rust Belt weirdos.” And as Cain adds, after being told that, given the infusion of star power into this division, the whole world is watching, “Maybe not the world. I mean, Canada, probably. And, like, three or four states.”
That’s about right for hockey, whose fans take a certain perverse pride in the sport’s fringe appeal — and who are, as this follow-up never forgets, pretty much the only people who will ever care to see it. Last of the Enforcers is a film made not only for but in many cases by this sort of person, at least judging from the pedigree of many of the folks involved in its creation: Russell, himself a former professional goalie, has already portrayed a member of the Philadelphia Flyers (This Is 40) and is, of course, the son of Kurt Russell, who in Miracle played famed U.S. men’s head coach Herb Brooks; Elisha Cuthbert, here in a smallish role, is married to Ottawa Senators tough guy Dion Phaneuf; Jay Baruchel, making his feature directorial debut, is a Montreal Canadiens diehard. (Baruchel also wisely keeps the scenes featuring his own character, the obnoxious Pat, to a minimum — another improvement over the first Goon.)
Beyond that, there are still plenty of red-meat inside jokes here: The Highlanders’ French Canadian centerpiece, Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-Andre Grondin), who simply must have been inspired by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Kris Letang, is still a human highlight reel who amazes the radio announcer when he deigns, for once, to play a little defense; one Eastern European opponent is an inscrutable 8-foot-tall behemoth apt to yell things like “Make shoot!”; the goalies are all total nutjobs. Nor is there any shortage of the earlier entry’s empty-headed stoner humor — see the idiot way Doug signs his name to a contract in a child’s all-majuscule hand, how he believes he has to explain to a friend and fellow fighter (Liev Schreiber) that a hot dog is “like a sausage sandwich,” how he answers his wife’s (Alison Pill) distressed phone call with “Eva, hello! It’s me, Doug Glatt!”
But there’s also some pointed satire this time around, a new gravity that takes the franchise beyond the first film’s M.O. of cutting all the, ahem, locker-room talk with moments of unexpected tenderness. Any follower of hockey would have to be denser than Dougie not to apprehend how this sequel comments on the troubling state of affairs in the sport — the frequent lockouts, for one, but also, more alarming, the professional game’s propensity for encouraging “enforcers,” those players who earn their living largely with their fists, before it effectively spits them out following a few years’ service. Where, exactly, are they meant to go from there? Head-traumatized, strung out on pain meds, and adrift in a world that seems not to have much more use for them, several notable exponents of the style have taken their own lives.
Last of the Enforcers’ cleverest conceit is an event dubbed “Bruised and Battered,” wherein these “retired fourth-liners” dispense with all pretext and suit up expressly for the purpose of bashing each other’s brains in over the course of what is essentially a cage match on ice (“a hockey tournament,” goes the billing, “with only one rule: no hockey”). It’s a trenchant riff on the old line about going to a fight and a hockey game breaking out; that it comes from a movie so otherwise besotted with the sport, and amid so much sillier lowbrow comedy, is no mean feat — and reason enough to recommend this new Goon.