The New York Rangers fly 4,000 miles cross country, then travel by helicopter to a remote Alaska village to play against some aging amateurs.
Well, if you can get past that conceptual whopper, there's only one thing standing between you and enjoyment of "Mystery, Alaska": the movie itself. It seems to represent the last spasm of the pre-revisionist sports film, with its naivete and its belief in the fabled power of athletics to inspire by heroic model.
It starts with a used-up formula--a scraggly gang of lovable riffraff taking on the big boys, going through crises of faith and self-doubt, and then magically finding the guts to get close to a mighty triumph (see "The Bad News Bears," "The Mighty Ducks," "Hoosiers," ad nauseam). Then it twists that formula ever further into the absurd.
Written by David E. Kelley, presumably in the back of a limo as he buzzed between "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," the film was directed by Jay Roach (of "Austin Powers" fame). Then it was carefully saved (the movie was originally screened in April)--until both Kelley and Roach had achieved celebrity via their other projects--for release now.
I have one question: Why?
The town is so idealized that it seems like a Brigadoon with pucks. It does have one other parallel to a Scottish town: None of the men have any front teeth.
How well we know this place! The characters are so familiar that you don't need a program; you need an inventory. There's one (1) each: Savvy Vet, Wise Coach, Up-and-Coming Young Stud, Sex Machine, Big Stupid Funny Guy and Impatient but Loving Wife. Some familiar faces bring a tinge of dignity to the proceeding, with Russell Crowe as the SV, Burt Reynolds as the WC and Mary McCormack as the I but LW.
It seems that in Mystery, the guys have been playing a purified brand of pond hockey for years, and have acquired skills that are almost mythic. How this happens without competition--they play in no league but only among themselves, in scrimmages--is beyond comprehension. But when a sportswriter (and ex-Mysterian) publishes a story in Sports Illustrated in praise of them, somehow the exhibition game is set up.
Again, the only proper response is: Yeah, right.
Filmmakers have so penetrated the mysteries of athletics that they have no difficulty making sports action believable, and the movie is at its meager best when bodies are flying around the ice and the puck is driven this way and that at near-lethal velocities. But the movie, even on its own terms, just isn't smart.
What makes these guys good is the absence of boards, which eliminates checking and puts a premium on speed and skating skill over beef and bravery. But when they agree to play the Rangers in an arena where they will be checked to chipped beef on the boards, they give up any chance of being competitive except in the realm of dumb movie fantasy. Note to Kelley/Roach: If you're going to make it, make it smart.
First-period morale collapse? Trailing at the break? Explosive locker room speech? Dammit, boys, we can win! Impossible rally? The clock ticking down as the amateurs get closer and closer? A final shot that screams toward the goal, the whole team and town's hopes and dreams riding on it as it nears the net?
Stop me if you've heard this before.
Mystery, Alaska (118 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for a completely unnecessary amount of profanity and sexual sophistication.
CAPTION: "Hoosiers" on ice: From left, Kevin Durand, Adam Beach, Cameron Bancroft and Burt Reynolds as the miraculous underdogs.