Mystery, Alaska

 
Laura Clifford 
Robin Clifford 

The people of Mystery, Alaska pride themselves on one thing only - hockey. When the mostly disliked Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria, "Godzilla"), who left Mystery years before, writes an article in Sports Illustrated about the amazing Alaskan team that plays every Saturday, they get the attention of the media and an offer to play the New York Rangers in a pre-season exhibition game.  Will this opportunity put Mystery on the map or shatter all their illusions?

Laura:
There have been far too few films (outside of the Canadian film industry, at least) about hockey, the only team sport I consider worth watching.  "The Mighty Ducks?" - feh.  "Slap Shot's" a good one, but that was an over-the-top comedy (as were any hockey references in "Strange Brew" or "Happy Gilmore"). John Woo's "Face/Off" featured nary a puck.  Now we have writer David E. Kelley's (TV wonderkind of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" and this year's drive-in giant alligator flick "Lake Placid") take on the sport, and while the game itself isn't represented as well as last month's "For Love of the Game" presented baseball, it's a much more even effort in it's romantic aspects, where the Costner flick fell flat.

Aussie actor Russell Crowe ("LA Confidential" and the upcoming "The Insider") is John Biebe, Mystery's sheriff and the team's anchor (they play four against four on a pond - no NHL rules here!)  He's been tagged as the greatest passer, but the slowest on the ice, in the Sports Illustrated article (it's notable that Biebe's married to Donna, the author's former high school flame), and is fearing the day when the town decides he must step aside for younger blood to have a chance.  This conflict is presented early on, when Mayor Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney, "The Commitments") tells John he must go so that Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott in his film debut), Mystery's fastest skater, can have his day in the sun.  As Biebe's thrown into a deep depression over his removal from his life's true obsession, he's faced with a number of other challenges.  The team's high scorer and store clerk, Connor Banks (Michael Buie) is arrested for shooting a representative from an insidious national retail chain (amusing cameo from Michael McKean) and Biebe's wife Donna's (Mary McCormack, "Private Parts") high school flame returns in a blaze of initial glory to capture her attention and dreams outside of Mystery.

One of "Mystery, Alaska's" strong points is how it shows the hardships suffered by the women of a remote town whose men live for a sport. Biebe's relationship isn't the only one in trouble.  The mayor's wife, Mary Jane (Lolita Davidovitch) is having an affair with lothario "Skank" Marden (Ron Eldard, "True Crime") (and she's not the only one).  Mystery's Judge Walter Burns' (Burt Reynolds) daughter is trying to lose her virginity to her steady Stevie before he hits the town's big time as a 'Saturday player.'

Judge Burns is also the town's only holdout in hockey fever.  He was a college player, but was never asked to join the Saturday event, and most folks believe he resents that.  He's very critical of his son 'Birdie', whom he claims skates like a homosexual (the worst insult that can be given in Mystery) and turns the town down flat when he's asked to coach the team for the big pro game.

On the flip side is Mystery's lawyer Bailey Pruitt (Maury Chaykin, "The Sweet Hereafter"), who defends Connor Banks in court and wins, much to the judge's disgust (the jury clearly only cares about getting their star forward off so he can play).  But Judge Burns shows his true colors when the Rangers file a lawsuit to avoid going to Mystery by secretly sending Pruitt to New York City to argue their case.

The big game itself presents many surprises (Bostonians should note that former Bruin (and New York Ranger) Phil Esposito has a cameo as a 'color' guy), and of course Biebe is called into play.  A heavily made-up Mike Meyers has a cameo as a fickle sports commentator.  Romantic relationships are worked out in believably nice ways.

"Mystery, Alaska" is a gently comical "Rockyesque" sports flick with a solid ensemble cast.

B

Robin:
"The Mighty Ducks" meets "Northern Exposure" is the best way to describe "Mystery, Alaska," yet another formula, rags-to-riches, David versus Goliath sports movie. This time, the players are members of the frigid little community of the title. Led by Sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe), the hockey players of the town are a breed apart. Totally dedicated to the sport, the team practices and plays religiously through the entire Alaskan winter, braving the bitterest weather just for the chance to play their beloved pond hockey. A "Sports Illustrated" article be former townie Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria) brings the team and the town to national prominence. Charlie parlays his work into a publicity stunt that will bring the New York Rangers to the frozen North for the game of Team Mystery's collective lives.

This "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan" for grownups offers little more than cliched story lines and a group of players that lack individual personalities. There is a game attempt to offer some depth to a couple of the players. Sheriff John has to face being cut from the team in favor of a young, upcoming player. Crowe does his usual solid job in trying to flesh out his character, but there isn't much there. John, with the arrival of Charlie, has to deal with jealousy when an old flame flares between Charlie and Donna, John's wife and mother to his boys. There are other story threads, too. Burt Reynolds is the town's judge who denigrates hid hockey player son. Mayor Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney) faces disaster if the game does not happen, while he copes with being cuckolded by wife, Mary Jane (Lolita Davidovitch) and one of the team players (I can't remember which one ? they all look alike). Then there's the coming of age for the team's youngest player, Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott)  and girlfriend. None of these story threads involve the viewer.

As a sports flick, there is all the action that one expects, but nothing that is compelling, as in "For Love of the Game." The action lacks the passion, mainly due to the direction by Jay Roach, who admits he knew nothing of the sport of hockey before filming "Mystery, Alaska." It shows. Directors such as Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham") or Sam Raimi have a love of sports that shows in their finished product. "Mystery, Alaska" does nothing to make you understand why these guys do what they do.

There are a lot of fine actors up on the screen, but there aren't any real characters that you can care about. The screenplay, by David E. Kelley (TV's "Alley McBeal") and his protege Sean O'Byrne, smacks of its television background. There is a timing to the film that feels like it is written for the small screen, including commercial breaks. The story and its people do not draw you in. I felt like a spectator, rather than a participant, while watching "Mystery, Alaska." There are no surprises, not even the big game between Team Mystery and the Rangers. A cameo appearance by Mike Myers as mythical hockey legend Donnie Shulzhoffer is an amusing, but too brief, performance as color man for the televised game.

Instead of paying to see "Mystery, Alaska," go to your video store and ask for a copy of "Slapshot." You'll have a lot more fun. I give it a C.

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