Spout Mavens Disc #6: The Rocket (2005)

The Rocket [Maurice Richard]
Director: Charles Binamé // Canadian, 2005
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

Of course we generally go to movies in which we either have an interest in a personality involved in the film,
whether it be a star or director or even the author of the source material, or we love a particular genre and wish to see new examples of such, or we have heard or deduced that there is an element within the plot which forms that interest. In most cases, those that love dinosaurs are more apt to see a film if it involves dinosaurs than a film that doesn't, and more so than those that don't appreciate large, lumbering prehistoric beasts.

The wall into which I have slammed my nose time and again through the brief period I have been part of the Spout Mavens group is constructed firmly by layers of DVDs containing films and subjects which I have absolutely zero interest in confronting in real life. And I have mentioned this time and again as well, though I have managed thus far to spew out some sort of nonsense resembling what is commonly called a review, if only to fulfill my obligations to the group. Were I an actual reviewer for a paper or television, I would regularly face off against such films, and most likely the bulk of them would be the sort of Hollywood pap that I usually am lucky to avoid. The beauty of simply blogging about films is that I can pick and choose my victims, and if I end up seeing a film that I hate unreservedly, most assuredly it is within a genre or regarding a subject which I normally find attractive, if indeed it isn't merely a starlet or a favorite actor that hasn't waltzed across my scope. And I found myself hoping that someday a disc might arrive from Spout which fell more into my comfort zone.

One finally did. Or so it would seem. Five years ago, The Rocket, a most intriguing biographical profile of Montreal hockey god Maurice Richard, would have plopped into a recliner in that comfort zone and propped its skates up on the ottoman for a pleasant but tough evening's entertainment. But not now. Five years ago, that was when I still mostly cared about sports, and the last time I gave two shits for hockey. Now, I'm living in a city proudly boasting the current Stanley Cup champions, and I have yet to even consider getting a ticket to a game since I moved here. The closest I have come is shaking a fist at the Honda Center ("The Pond-a") because of all the traffic gumming up the surrounding streets following a Cup victory, while we were trying to get home from the movies. I have never seen a live NHL game, so you'd think this would be on my list of worthwhile pursuits. And yet, I am still quite well-versed on most of the major sports to this day. But here's the rub (and you might be surprised to find that it has nothing to do grumbling about striking millionaires): while I talk a good game at work, the truth is that I have grown increasingly tired of sports. I now find the devotion required to follow such events to be an ever emptier pursuit.

Yes, I follow the Packers as much as I have throughout my life, but only to keep a conversational touchstone with my father. Outside of this team, I do not watch the NFL at all. Once the Pack is out of the playoff picture, the picture on my TV switches to a movie. I barely have a favorite team in any other sport anymore, outside of baseball. And while I can still work up a lather of concern over a Mariners or Reds game even in late May, my stock in baseball overall has dipped to an all-time low on the index. I've never believed ever that baseball was the Great Game of Innocence that its most ardent defenders constantly assure us was the historical case -- pro baseball has always been graced by a certain level of playful corruption -- but it is going to be hard to go to Angel Stadium next spring and pretend that the efforts on the field aren't the work of nefarious outside chemistry. The harshest part for me when watching sports now, and especially the fans, is remembering Seinfeld's statement that, due to the yearly turnover of players on any given team, that all we are really doing is "rooting for laundry." Since I do not generally subscribe to landmass allegiances, why would I do this for a sports uniform? It's hard to continue the rah-rah-sis-boombah once that gets earwormed into your brain. (The funniest part? My bread is buttered by my 9-to-5 work for a sports organization. Ironic, no?)

One other fear I had to quell before diving into The Rocket was the problem that most sports movies have: that certain lack of inertia that comes when these films hew too closely to the tried-and-true formula. I'm not going to repeat the formula; we have all faced it time and again, nearly every time a sports movie comes out. Certainly more than just sports movies can give a viewer the feeling that they know exactly how a film is going to end; following the generic sports movie formula, a viewer can know exactly how every reel will end. Double this feeling when the film is also supposed to serve as biography. Certainly, there are many great sports movies, and the best of them (Raging Bull, Eight Men Out, The Pride of the Yankees) generally concentrate more on the tortured psyches or fractured bodies of the athletes who did or didn't win, rather than on what they won and who they beat to do it. Not all winners are necessarily heroes, (nor losers, villains, as it turns out), but the sports formula, with its comeback training montages, its inspirational speeches or the right person taking a seat in the stands just when it seems all is lost, generally doesn't recognize that fact. The formula films, when fused with biography, also confuse surface facts with viewer interest. Look, we all know who won the game and who lost -- we saw it on TV or read it in the paper; nothing would be more boring to me than watching a film about a team that wins the World Series by actually showing them winning the World Series. Give us a look at what it takes to even face off in such a competition, let alone the mettle it takes to actually persevere in it. Even Rocky, which sets out initially to be one of these types of formula flicks, was slightly more concerned about getting Rocky laid, and since people remember every element of his rise to the near top (especially the montages), they often forget that he loses the closing fight.

The Rocket couldn't be less concerned structurally with who won the games; it just wants to show us what drove Richard to play the way he did. Far beyond my expectations, The Rocket not only show us Maurice Richard's mettle, but how he built it punch by punch over several years through battles both on the ice and in the NHL league offices. The film opens in chaos in 1955, a dozen years and three Stanley Cups into his pro career, as we hear radio reports of thousands of Montreal fans hitting the streets in an infamous riot protesting NHL president Clarence Campbell's presence at a game after Richard was given a huge suspension (rest of the season and through the playoffs) for decking a linesman. How did it get to this point? And how did Richard inspire such devotion? The reasons were possibly far more politically and socially driven than it might seem at first, seeing how it stemmed from a mere hockey game.

The film then jumps backward to 1937 to bring us Richard's hardscrabble formative years in Junior Hockey and his struggles to land a spot on Quebec's Montreal Canadiens of the NHL, all the while supporting his young wife as a low-paid machinist. Through his battles on the ice, constant bickering with the league's front office, and constantly striving to prove himself both to his coach and himself, Richard surges stubbornly forward over every obstacle, taking revenge on his on-ice oppressors and firing back at his critics via the press. To a complete outsider to Québécois culture (and largely one to what it takes to succeed in hockey), such as myself, this appears to be mere bullheadedness, but then we begin to see a fuller portrait of a man who simply refuses to let anyone push him around or tell him how he should behave, be it a father-in-law, a coach, an entire league, or anyone believing him to be an idiot because of his Francophone heritage.

But one needs a remarkable actor to not only make us believe in this man, but also that he is embodying one of the greatest stars in the history of sports, especially in a time when helmets didn't cover up a player's head (and would thus make it harder to employ a stunt double in key action shots). That remarkable actor is Roy Dupuis, probably best known in American as Michael on the TV series version of La Femme Nikita, who previously played Richard in both a short film and a television movie. It is a brutal, bloody role, and Dupuis impresses greatly by showing both Richard's toughness and tortured soul, while still selling fully the notion of Richard as one of the fastest and most prolific scorers in the game of that era.

The film itself is solidly produced, and I derived my greatest pleasure from the film's generous glimpses into both a time period (war-time Canada) and occupation (pro hockey in the '40s & '50s) not often seen on American screens. While I had some quibbles over the need for some The rest of the cast performs admirably, and I especially enjoyed veteran Stephen McHattie, whom I don't often enjoy, as gruff (what else?) and demanding Montreal coach Dick Irvin. Julie LeBreton does a solid, quiet turn as Richard's loyal, long-suffering wife, Lucille, though my one major gripe is that she never seems to be quite as young as she is portraying, at least, in the early years. A smaller gripe is that many of the dramatic scenes involving side characters have a TV movie quality to them, and I could do without what are supposed to be "grounding" scenes with Richard's barber, who seems to be a font of folk wisdom that rings false to me.

Overall, five years away from giving two shits about hockey, this one was a surprise. I'm now buying some skates so I can kick them up on the ottoman and watch the thing again.

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