By Rob Blackwelder
"Mystery, Alaska" is a modern, good old-fashioned, American feel-good movie, about a talented hockey team in a snowbound, Arctic Circle hamlet that gets to take on the New York Rangers in an NHL publicity stunt.
It's an obliging tweak on the traditional, triumphant underdog story, used as a backdrop for a delightful character dramedy that mixes tried-and-true with mordant-and-new -- like a frozen, Frank Capra-meets-Robert Altman, ensemble sports movie.
Written by Sean O'Byrne and David E. Kelley ("The Practice," "Ally McBeal," "Lake Placid"), and directed by Jay Roach (the "Austin Powers" movies), it's hard to not get caught up in the energetic spirit of this film from the opening shot, which zooms in on a lone figure, decked out in hockey gear and skating like the wind around icy Alaskan vistas while the soundtrack pumps with drum-driven, inspired determination music.
Sure its transparent, but by the time the titles are over, you're completely engaged, and you have yet to meet a single character.
The catalyst for the story is a Sports Illustrated cover piece about Mystery's hard-boiled amateur hockey team, written by Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria, in a breakout performance), the town's least favorite native son who never really fit in because he stunk on ice. Charlie took off bigger things the first chance he got, and now has returned as something of a scorned hero, trying to repatriate and bearing the news that the pros want to come play a game with the Mystery boys.
Debates soon erupt around the little burg. When Charlie brings in a real zamboni for smoothing out the lake ice and the mayor (Colm Meaney) gives the go-ahead for a virtual do-it-your-self stadium of bleachers and lights, will Mystery lose itself in this overwhelming event and become commercialized?
Some folks see the game as a big city threat, just like the PriceWorld store (think Wal-Mart) that's trying to move in to town. Others think their players will be humiliated. But views are countered by die-hards, positive the locals can win since the Rangers aren't used to playing in sub-zero weather, on a lake, and without sideboards and 20,000 fans.
Amongst all the hoopla, we get involved with a smattering of Mystery natives, who really give the film a sense of quirky (and sometimes comedic) community as they all begin to wonder what this bizarre event will do to their quiet town.
Russell Crowe ("L.A. Confidential") is the local sheriff and aging star player, retired by the team for a hotshot high school kid -- until they coax him back to coach, then to play, when the Rangers come calling. But he's none to happy about Charlie being in town in the first place since Charlie and his wife were once sweethearts.
Ron Eldard ("Deep Impact") plays the town stud, who "play(s) hockey and sleep(s) around because those are the most fun things to do in cold weather." He has a few problems with angry husbands and thrown-over girlfriends.
Burt Reynolds steals several scenes as a cantankerous judge, apprehensive about Mystery losing its dignity and his apple-cheeked teenage daughter (Rachel Wilson) losing her virginity to the aforementioned teenage hockey star.
These elements might sound a little simple and silly in synopsis, but only one plot line feels extraneous (the Ranger players are reluctant to participate in this stunt), mostly because its just an excuse to send some aw-shucks Mysterians off to a contrastingly cynical metropolis for an emotionally manipulative court hearing.
Otherwise, Roach expertly juggles a dozen stories (even if he does lay on the pathos a little thick), getting our hearts truly involved in each of them as he builds toward the inevitable last act -- the big game -- which is as exciting as a sports movie finale can be.
I couldn't help but grin myself silly as the Mystery team took to the ice, and took the home lake advantage with a couple crisp scores before the Rangers acclimate to the frost-bitten weather and get their wits about them.
Peppered with laughs and dingy cameos (Mike Myers as a network sports analyst) as the game is broadcast nation wide, the last 15 minutes is pandering (though not entirely predictable), stand-up-and-cheer fare. But boy is it effective -- thanks in part to composer Carter Burwell's stimulating score and cinematographer Peter Deming's invigorating, bone-crunching, you're-on-the-rink visual flair. (Actually, his photography is incredible throughout. I hope the guy gets an Oscar nod.)
Frankly, "Mystery, Alaska" could have stood a little trim in the editing room (starting with that extraneous storyline), but nonetheless it's a rare beast -- a warm fuzzy movie with a salty, sardonic wit. They may not make 'em like they used to, but if they keep making 'em like this I might just become an optimist.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st October 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $8.9M
Distributed by: Buena Vista
Production compaines: Hollywood Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 38%
Fresh: 31 Rotten: 50
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Russell Crowe as John Biebe, Hank Azaria as Charles Danner, Mary McCormack as Donna Biebe, Burt Reynolds as Judge Walter Burns, Colm Meaney as Mayor Scott Pitcher, Lolita Davidovich as Mary Jane Pitcher, Maury Chaykin as Bailey Pruitt, Ron Eldard as 'Skank' Marden, Ryan Northcott as Stevie Weeks, Michael Buie as Connor Banks, Kevin Durand as 'Tree' Lane, Scott Grimes as 'Birdie' Burns
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