Something momentous is about to happen to Mystery, Alaska, and all 688 residents of this podunk mountain town await it with baited breath, from mayor to sheriff to grocery clerk. No, Tony Robbins isn’t making an appearance, but the New York Rangers are! There is something remarkable about this town, you see. Mystery is a hockey town, but not just any hockey town. This is a town recently featured in a Sports Illustrated story entitled, “The Roots of Hockey,” chronicling the near fanatical devotion Mystery bears for the sport of ice hockey.
It’s transcended mere recreation in this town; every resident rabidly follows the town’s “team,” a somewhat ragtag bunch comprised of the finest twelve players in Mystery, who gather every Saturday for what could only be described as a “rite” of hockey. Everyone in town watches, with the personnel decisions made by the town “elders,” comprised of the mayor and two of his cronies. These decisions are monumental, often changing the lives of the players involved.
The games certainly mean more than the drudgery of everyday life in rural Alaska, leaving the town a constant hotbed of gossip and ferocious competition. The story centers around Sheriff John Biebe (played ably by Russell Crowe, a star of L.A. Confidential), a 13-year veteran of the town’s team, who after one dismal Saturday performance is dubbed too slow to compete anymore, and is replaced by Weeks, a young phenom. Biebe is justifiably destroyed by this decision, but understanding of it. To top off his day, a real estate developer for PriceWorld has recently been scouting property near the town (actually, he’s trying to destroy the town’s economy, as it were), and is promptly shot in the foot by star center/ grocery clerk Connor Banks.
This is a near crisis, not because of the lawsuit or anything like that, but because of the game. You see, former resident Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria), a successful TV producer but failed hockey player (as we find out later), has returned bearing the most irresistible offer ever laid across Mystery’s table; a game against the New York Rangers, played on the “black ice” of Mystery’s pond. The town, on the other hand, is willing to lay everything on the line for this opportunity (financial and otherwise), but will it be worth it? Can they escape with their pride (and wallets) intact? If you’re slightly incredulous as to whether this makes for a fine film or not, I can assure you you’re entirely justified in wondering. The truth is, Mystery, Alaska has not a bad bone in its well-intentioned body, but ultimately there’s barely enough meat on this carcass to justify even calling in the buzzards.
What ensues is not unlike a genetically engineered version of Dawson’s Creek, crossbred with a strain of Northern Exposure and mated with Hoosiers. There’s a premature ejaculation scene inside a snowplow; a local lawyer collapsing dead from a heart attack after delivering a rousing and inspirational speech in defense of “the game” in a New York City courtroom (the Rangers at first don’t want to participate, and have to be forced); there’s even the attempts that Charlie makes to rekindle a high school romance with Biebe’s wife Donna, leading to much marital turmoil, soul-searching, and the inevitable make-up sex, presumably carried out on the frozen pond.
There’s a fair amount to like about Mystery, Alaska: it’s cast is enthusiastic and spirited; the players are eccentric enough to be interesting with an infectious “ohmygosh!” attitude; the hockey sequences are well-shot and realistic, although the movie suffers most from a sluggish pace. You really just want to see the game, and not deal with all the stupid plot “intricacies” that orbit around the main event like so many annoying, bleeping satellites that you wish would just go away. When Mystery finally does play the Rangers, you’ve been looking at your watch for the last half hour, just in time to catch a brilliant cameo by Mike Myers (as Sportscaster Donnie Schulzhoffer). He almost justifies the price of admission. Almost. And the game? Well, at least Mystery escapes with its pride…