It’s nearly impossible to make a sports movie these days that isn’t over-the-top, fists-in-the-air hyper-sentimental and “inspiring,” and most of these recent offerings are deplorable. Miracle may be the best of the lineup, thanks to its period story (the underdog U.S. hockey team besting the Soviet übermensch in the 1980 Winter Games) and Kurt Russell, as the coach, in an outrageous hair-helmet wig.
A hockey movie for people who play hockey as well as for those who just watch it. In this small Alaskan town, the greatest ambition and honor is to skate in the Saturday Game—a weekly event that entails skating out of a log-cabin locker room to the cheers of the town’s populace and playing on frozen ponds circled by towering firs and ice-capped mountains (this is a place where snowmobiles and ice skates are used for transportation, not recreation). Of course, plot-wise, the big-city types invade with a deal to play a show game with the New York Rangers. Mystery, Alaska is heartwarming underdog schmaltz without being smarmy, and true fans will appreciate such quirkiness as warming skates with hot potatoes and being forced to slide, bare-assed, across the ice as punishment for transgressions against teammates. Ranger fans will be put off, though: their team are depicted as overpaid, spoiled princes who can only play in heated rinks. With Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, and Burt Reynolds.
Essentially The Bad News Bears on Ice, this formulaic story of a self-centered lawyer (Emilio Estevez) who finds redemption coaching a klutzy peewee hockey team garnered enough box office draw and wholeheartedly devoted fans to warrant two sequels, a TV series, and a video game. For the prepuberty leagues only, The Mighty Ducks certainly pounds home the importance of teamwork—and the potential amorality of rich lawyers.
The first and probably only genuine American satire about hockey, this black-eyed hoot in the Michael Ritchie style (think Smile, The Bad News Bears, and Semi-Tough) has Paul Newman playing an aging sub-league coach/captain determined to make his small-town’s scruffy franchise profitable, even if it means breaking every rule and premeditating assault. Written by veteran radical comedy ace Nancy Dowd, the unglamorous film was a modest success upon its release, but its fame and cult esteem have grown exponentially in the years since. If you can’t quote from Slap Shot, you’ve gotten yourself left behind.