A million years ago, I used to be a film reviewer for The Sunday Age newspaper and on radio. As part of a new even-more-self-indulgent-than-this author site I’ve been setting up, because of the new novel, I happened to dig back through my archives to show different forms of writing I’ve made a living from.
Anyway, among the film reviews I found my take on ‘Mystery, Alaska‘. It’s so funny to read now because back then (1999), ice hockey meant nothing to me. I wish I could jump in the Wayback Machine, drop in on that pre-millennium version of Nicko and say: “Guess what, clueless? This sport’s going to rock your world in a decade or so. Pay attention!”
‘MYSTERY, ALASKA’ REVIEW.
THE SUNDAY AGE, MELBOURNE.
By Nick Place
Things sure are weird up there in deepest, coldest Alaska. The local sheriff gets around on a snow-scooter, people have affairs and nobody seems to mind, and a man is all but cheered for shooting a sales rep for a big American chain. Plus the local religion involves men on skates, wielding sticks as they chase a puck around a frozen lake.
Yes, the latest celluloid homage to sport as religion, garnished with some left-field country characters and the can’t-go-wrong spine of an underdog’s day in the sun has arrived on local screens. If you’re thinking Northern Exposure with hockey sticks, you wouldn’t be too far from the mark, even putting the Alaskan setting aside. Written and produced by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal), there’s the overbearing mayor, the handsome, cruisy local youths and the gorgeous, independent women. Plus some old timers with plenty of attitude.
It adds up to a likeable enough package, even if it is a little difficult for Australian audiences to access, given the fact that most of the action takes place at 10 degrees below, while we’re coming off a baking summer, as well as the reality that most Australians know about as much about the finer points of ice hockey as they do about ichthyology (fish vets excluded).
The plotline goes that the citizens of Mystery, Alaska, love their remote setting and savour hockey as the basis of their existence. The Saturday Game, when the very best skaters line up to do battle in endless “intra-club” matches, is Everything for the men who play and the gals who cheer them on. When a local man who moved away to New York (his biggest local crime was that he was crap as a skater) writes a piece for Sports Illustrated about how Mystery is the pure origin of hockey, an exhibition game between the prestigious New York Rangers and the local good ol’ boys is organised.
At this point, the whole thing veers off into country somewhere between Bull Durham and Local Hero. The actual concept is so ludicrous that you must suspend all disbelief. In reality, imagine if the AFL Kangaroos’ best team was to take on a country footy side that fancied itself – no, not pretty. Yet, Mystery, Alaska aims to be Rocky On Ice. The premise is raised that while, admittedly, on fenced NHL ice, the Mystery boys would be slaughtered, on fenced local ice, they’re half a chance. In fact, the only thin ice is in the plot.
The biggest shock of all is that the Mystery team is being led by none other than a Sydney boy, in the form of Russell Crowe. Clearly, the Crowe-man wanted to score some cheap Husky, Handsome Hero Points after his ugly, sweaty, stress-filled but fantastic performance in The Insider. Either that, or he was putting in an Alaskan pre-season for Gladiator, the Ridley Scott Roman battle epic that opens soon.
Directors have a habit of casting Crowe in brooding roles, where he looks people in the eye and is straight as an arrow yet a man of few words. In Mystery, Alaska, there’s the extra element that his character is getting on in hockey years and nearing the end of his powers (yep, more parallels with Kevin Costner in Bull Durham). Crowe does a good job of looking like he’s right at home in the snow and the skating scenes are shot well enough that his hockey stand-in is a lot less obvious than Don Adams’ used to be in Get Smart action sequences.
You could probably wait for this one on video and not lose much sleep, but it won’t disappoint on the big screen. The plot is not always obvious and the characters and script are entertaining. A solid cast, including Burt Reynolds, provides support for Crowe.
Mystery, Alaska (THREE STARS, M, 119 minutes) is on general release.
(Well, it ain’t now, 14 years later … it is on DVD.)