Jay Baruchel’s Goon franchise, which receives its second installment this week with Last of the Enforcers, is, in many ways but one, a typical sports-movie saga. It centers on a character, Doug Glatt, played with good-natured thickness by Seann William Scott, who rises from zero to hero, à la Rudy and Invincible; it features a team of misfits, the Halifax Highlanders, who become more than the sum of their mismatched parts, à la Mighty Ducks and Hoosiers; and both installments culminate in win-or-go-home games against the protagonist’s bitter rival, à la more movies than I could possibly list right now. While the gleefully vulgar sense of humor also calls to mind cult favorites like Slap Shot and Major League, Baruchel and his collaborators — director Michael Dowse and co-writer Evan Goldberg on the 2011 film, co-writer Jesse Chabot on Last of the Enforcers — seem ultimately more interested in the sentimental heart of the story than the punch lines (even if Baruchel does play a character, Pat, who’s basically a walking hockey message board).
But here’s how the Goon movies aren’t like these other films: They’re really, really Canadian.
Before we delve into the working definition of “Canadian,” a few caveats: As an American writer living in Los Angeles, California, I can’t speak to any accurate or meaningful picture of what being Canadian means on a personal or national level. Nor can most other Americans, whose knowledge of Canada tends toward cliché-level quips about maple syrup and moose — except, of course, during election years, when we crash the country’s immigration website.
But it’s also possible to see in the Goon series a distinctly non-American quality, and to understand this quality, at least to some extent, as stemming from that Canadian-ness. And in the current moviegoing climate, that’s notable. As the studios increasingly coalesce around a notion of “worldwide” appeal, a word that caters to the phenomenon of the international box office but also highlights the newfound virtue of unspecificity, cultural distinctiveness is in growing danger of becoming a disadvantage. While there are endless convincing counterarguments against this movement, the fact remains that of the 30 highest-grossing movies of 2017 so far, just two earned more than 51 percent of their box-office take domestically: The Lego Batman Movie, at 56 percent, and Get Out, at 70 percent. This isn’t meant to put a value judgment on domestic versus international business — it’s just to state a fact, which is that if you make your movie difficult to comprehend across international markets, you risk leaving a whole bunch of money on the table.
Ironically, Canada is actually a part of the “domestic” rather than “international” category, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that, unlike so many movies being released these days, the Goon franchise feels like the product of a specific culture and community. And whether that culture and community reflects the actual Canada or just a simulacrum existing in the American imagination, these movies still feel really damn Canadian.
First and foremost: The Goon movies are about hockey — and not just hockey, but minor-league hockey, a sport so geographically and culturally specific it might as well be hurling. “The world is watching,” Halifax Highlanders owner Hyram Cain says to his son and star, Anders Cain. “Maybe not the world,” Anders replies. “Canada, probably, and like, three or four states.” But even more than minor-league hockey — which Slap Shot famously treated from an American perspective — and the literal setting of Canada, it’s the hockey-specific concept of the enforcer that gives Goon this distinction.
From an American perspective, the idea of an enforcer is almost contradictory to the nature of sports. Here, most athletes exist in a binary: the team on one side, and the individual on the other. The better you are, the more you can get away with moving toward the individual end of that spectrum, and certain positions, obviously, tend toward serving one pole over the opposite. But sports culture in the United States is still largely defined by the primacy of the team. Take football, the most American of sports, and the sport that’s most popular in America. In football, the ideal of serving the team, the collective, is held up constantly by coaches and executives; players who gain a reputation as placing themselves above the team often see their careers and popularity suffer as a result. Much of this is coded racial or cultural bias, a subject that requires far more space than we can give it here, but the point is that those two concepts exist more or less in opposition: You’re either serving the team, or you’re serving yourself.
The enforcer as presented in Goon, and as played by Scott, doesn’t exist on this spectrum. Doug Glatt is portrayed as a selfless sweetheart, a man whose dim-wittedness is treated as a positive quality — if Machiavelli had an opposite, it would be him. When Glatt joins the Highlanders, he can barely skate, and he has no stickhandling or offensive skills to speak of. What he can do is fight — and in the minor-league hockey world of this film, fighting has a strange and unique role. Fighters are fan favorites who behave selflessly; they provide essential help for their teammates, but they don’t help their team win. They’re like bodyguards on skates, intimidating the opposition and protecting their own guys.
This flies in the face of American ideas about what it means to be a sports hero. While Glatt’s reverential of the team and the sport, he’s most concerned with aiding and supporting his teammates rather than the jingoistic notion of the greater cause. In the second film, he applies that same idea to his wife and unborn son — they’re his teammates, and he wants to serve them above all. Most of all, he’s nice: He’s nice to his teammates, he’s nice to his opponents, whom he often apologizes to before beating into pulp, and he’s nice to everyone else. He is, oddly, a humanistic warrior, a hyperviolent, hypermasculinized teddy bear.
That’s what feels so quintessentially Canadian, and non-American, about the Goon movies. Unlike the vast majority of American sports cinema, they aren’t focused on the essential catharsis of triumph — whether it’s the triumph of the individual or of the team, on a small scale or a large one. Instead, they’re a testament to the inherent value of kindness and camaraderie, even in the midst of ritualized, hyperbolic violence. And from this side of the border, in this specific epoch of the United States of America, that seems Canadian as hell.