Rated R - Running Time: 1:59 - Released 10/1/99

I'm always dubious about sports movies, because it seems like they pretty much always have to follow the same course. A team has problems to overcome, and, through a process of hard work, practice, and self-discovery, overcomes them while preparing for "the big game" (or match, or meet, or whatever). Mystery, Alaska, directed by M. Jay Roach (Austin Powers), is one such film, featuring a few humorous situations and a good line here and there, but ultimately bringing very little to the table that is new or different. It is written by hotshot TV producer David E. Kelley, creator of Ally McBeal and Chicago Hope, with the help of newcomer Sean O'Byrne. Perhaps Kelley's participation is the reason it feels more like a 2-hour TV sitcom than a feature film. The characters are shallow, the relationships are thin, and the resolution is not only a foregone conclusion, but tied up too simply to resemble the complexity of real life.

The borough of Mystery, Alaska, is very small and very cold, but it has one thing that distinguishes it from others: The Saturday Game. Once a week, the town's talented and locally famous hockey team gets together for a game on its own frozen pond. It is not clear whether they play against teams from other towns or simply against each other, but they're so good, an article is published in Sports Illustrated about them, resulting in an exhibition game being arranged against the New York Rangers. The town's sheriff, John Biebe (Russell Crowe), recently bumped from the team, is asked to coach by Mayor Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney), who normally coaches the team himself, but is too busy preparing for the upcoming media event. Biebe must deal with his conflicting feelings about the young up-and-comer who replaced him, Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott), and at the same time watch as his wife (Mary McCormack) flirts with her former boyfriend Charlie (Hank Azaria). Charlie, now living in New York, is the one who wrote the SI article and arranged the game, but is dissed by everyone in town for being such a jerk. The team features several distinctive players, like Connor Banks (Michael Buie), the teams leading scorer, "Tree" Lane (Kevin Durand), the gentle giant with the heart of gold, and "Skank" Marden (Ron Eldard), who spends his time sleeping with every woman in town when he's not on the ice. Also present are the stodgy judge (Burt Reynolds), who doesn't want to coach but does anyway, and the lawyer (Maury Chaykin), who must argue the town's case when the Rangers renege on their deal to play.

So we see the team practice, worry, deal with their various relationship problems, and play hockey. We see the townspeople worry, deal with their relationship problems, and watch hockey. The most interesting aspect of the story is Biebe's fear that Mystery will be commercialized to the point of losing its small town charm. This is illustrated not only by the hype surrounding the upcoming game, but by the possibility of a Wal-Mart-style mega-retailer moving in.

Not that Mystery isn't fun to watch. Anyone who likes sports will probably enjoy seeing the players play and feeling the natural excitement of competition, no matter what the story is. Also there are a few surprise appearances by Mike Myers and Little Richard (whose only line, besides singing the national anthem, is "I'm cold"). But those interested in seeing more than hockey, with a few good jokes thrown in, will be disappointed. It is formulaic, filled with trite conventions — it even has the old "slow-clap-building-to-thunderous-applause" gimmick. Ugh. ***½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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