Mystery, Alaska (1999) – 3.5/5 Stars


It goes without saying that “Mystery, Alaska” is all about hockey, but the spin on that is that it’s about more than the sport and that’s the difference maker between a good and great sports film. “Mystery” falls somewhere in between those compliments, but transcending hockey is what this movie can hang its skates on. The title says it all. Instead of being called “cliche underdog title,” or “intense sports words” it simply refers to the town it takes place in, because that’s what’s at its heart. Even if the sexual humor is completely awkward and the swearing uncalled for, this movie is about the pride of a small town whose very existence centers around hockey.

For one thing, it’s worth mentioning that “Mystery, Alaska” is not based on a true story. Thank goodness. Just because a story is true doesn’t make it a great sports movie. “Mystery” takes all the best elements of an underdog sports story and blends them with this small- town concept by David E. Kelly (“Doogie Howser,” “Allie McBeal” and “The Practice” creator) and Sean O’Byrne.

Russell Crowe stars as the veteran anchor of the city hockey team as well as the town sheriff of Mystery, Alaska, where everyone knows everyone and hockey is all that matters. Charlie (Hank Azaria), who grew up in Mystery but flew the nest to be a journalist, writes a piece on the team in Sports Illustrated that captures the interest of the NHL: They want the New York Rangers to fly out to Mystery and play the Alaskans.

Meanwhile we learn how word spreads in a town like Mystery. One player aptly named Skank is having an affair with the mayor’s wife, the youngest player and his girlfriend try becoming sexually active to awkward results and Charlie’s presence creates some conflict between John (Crowe) and his wife (Mary McCormack). There’s also a lawsuit pending against the sharpshooter of the team because he shot a corporate bigwig in the foot. It’s funny but kind of a sad moment when the jury reads the verdict of not guilty with a sly smile and everyone rejoices because without that player, the Mystery team would have surely lost.

The small-town politics might be kind of goofy and the random sexual remarks puzzling, but it gives “Mystery” a soul and keeps it from being dependent on game footage. There’s a little bit of game footage early on and then not until the face off with the Rangers. Those scenes become that much more interesting when they don’t dominate the film — a way too common error of most sports movies. Although there is a training montage and a slow clap in this movie, the intention is well and the heart still there.

“Mystery” has some classic moments for a sports film and that’s all you can ask for. It might not be the sports epic that “Miracle” became five years later, but it has that genuinely friendly small-town sensibility making it not only unique, but also less glamorized. It’s easy to excuse a film with this much heart of all its quirks and flaws.

3.5/5 Stars

Mystery, Alaska (1999)
Directed by: Jay Roach
Written by: David E. Kelly, Sean O’Byrne
Starring: Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, Burt Reynolds