By Bill Simmons
Imagine being an NHL fan right now? Your favorite league pretty much self-combusted. It's been so long since you caught a glimpse of Barry Melrose, you're practically going into withdrawal. You keep waiting for Vince McMahon to launch the XHL, but he's too wrapped up with WrestleMania XXI right now. The Winter Olympics are still a good 11 months away. And you can't find any games from the IHL, EJHL, CHL, IHOP or any other minor hockey league on your cable system. If this sounds like you, here are four words to cheer you up ...
"Wanna go, pretty boy?"
|SPORTS GUY AT THE MOVIES|
|In no particular order, Bill Simmons presents his "72 Best Sports Movies Of The Past 33 Years." Here's what we have so far:
Yep, it's time to break down "Youngblood," Canada's ridiculous answer to "Hoosiers" in 1986, which gained a second life on cable and somehow managed to crack my "Top 72 Sports Movies of All-Time" list. How did this happen? Because there aren't as many entertaining sports movies out there as you might think. For instance, when I was reading Bill James's updated Historical Baseball Abstract a few years ago, and James ranked Rick Dempsey as the 43rd greatest catcher ever, I remember thinking at the time, "Wait a second, this is impossible Rick Freaking Dempsey???" before plowing through the rest of the list and realizing that No. 43 was actually the perfect spot for him.
Same goes for "Youngblood," which ranks No. 57 on the list for the unintentional comedy more than anything else. I mean, have you SEEN Rob Lowe skate? It's like the producers asked Lowe's agent before filming, "We're ready to make the deal, but just to make sure, you're sure Rob can skate, right?," and Lowe's agent told them, "Oh, yeah, he's like lightning out there!," then hung up and quickly speed-dialed the nearest skating coach. More importantly, have you SEEN Rob Lowe fight? He couldn't even beat up Andrew McCarthy in "Class," and we were supposed to believe he could knock out the toughest enforcer in the Canadian Hockey League? Everything considered, Lowe was slightly more believable than Michael J. Fox in "Teen Wolf," not quite as believable as Tim Robbins in "Bull Durham," and right on par with the kid from "Rookie of the Year" throwing 143 miles-an-hour.
But here's the thing about Lowe: He was a decent actor, women loved him, and he had a pretty good run there in the mid-80's, pumping out "The Outsiders", "Class", "Oxford Blues", "St. Elmo's Fire", "Youngblood" and "About Last Night" in a five-year span. Sure, it's not up there with Eddie Murphy from 1982 to 1987, or even Ginger Lynn from 1984 through 1988, but it's impressive nontheless. Stick him in a sports movie, shoot all the hockey scenes in slow motion, have him win a few games AND bag the coach's daughter, and you're probably in good shape. Nearly 20 years later, the movie still holds up ... although not for all the reasons that they originally intended. But still, it holds up.
Lowe plays Dean Youngblood, a 17-year-old hockey prodigy from upstate New York who works on his dad's farm, along with the token "bitter brother whose career was ended by a stick to the eye." (Important note: I think they came up with upstate New York so Lowe wouldn't have to unleash a Canadian accent on us.) Offered a tryout with the Hamilton Mustangs in Canada, Lowe explains to his dad, "I gotta play junior if I ever wanna play pro," followed by the inevitable resistance from his Dad, followed by Lowe's inevitable line: "Look, I don't wanna be a [bleeping] farmer the rest of my life!"
(Important sports movie note: Thirteen years later, this line transformed into "I don't WANT ... YOUR LIFE!" And no, I shouldn't have to name the movie).
At the tryout, a few things immediately stand out:
1. Ed Lauter (a "That Guy" Hall of Famer) plays Hamilton's coach, yet another notch for a Sports Movie resume that includes: "The Jericho Mile", "The Longest Yard", "Seabiscuit" and "Gleaming the Cube"; in fact, when he lost out to J.K. Simmons for the part of Costner's bald manager in "For Love of the Game," it was the biggest upset since Douglas-Tyson. You're always, always, ALWAYS in good hands with Ed Lauter.
2a. The star forward on the team? A mullet-wearing Patrick Swayze.
2b. The star goaltender on the team? A French-Canadian speaking Keanu Reeves.
2c. The star defenseman on the team? A chain-smoking, belligerent Frank Stallone.
(Note: I made up only one of those last three paragraphs).
3. When Coach Lauter keeps Youngblood over the intimidating Karl Racki despite the fact that Racki decked Youngblood twice during the scrimmage it's pretty safe to say that we haven't heard the last of Racki. But the fact that Youngblood fights like Robin Ventura did give the coach some pause, prompting the following exchange at my house last weekend:
Sports Gal: "Wait, would the team really care how good of a fighter he is?"
Me: "You're nitpicking with a movie where Keanu Reeves plays a French-Canadian goalie?"
(Important note: I forgot to give Raki's "Wanna go, pretty boy?" line its own paragraph, so I'm doing it here if only because it became the defining quote from the movie, as well as the go-to joke during any hockey game when a tough guy tries to start with a not-so-tough guy. When you think about it, "wanna go, pretty boy?" is to hockey fights what "using the whole fist, doc?" is to a prostate exam).
Anyway, Youngblood tries to settle in with his new team, as they give him an inordinate amount of crap for fighting like a girl, then haze him by shaving his pubic hairs, which would have led to a 90-minute edition of "Outside the Lines" had the incident happened 20 years later. (On the bright side, I'm finally able to write the words "pubic hairs" in an ESPN.com column.) After that, they take him out drinking and pull the old Shawn Sullivan Memorial "We'll keep ordering shots and pretend to drink them while we get the new guy hammered" trick, an entertaining scene that also leads to Keanu's only three lines of the movie:
1. Describing Racki: "That man is f*****g an Ani-MAL."
2. Provocation unclear: "Take it out again for the second time!"
3. Showing his badge: "I AM AN EFF BEE EYE AGENT!"
(By the way, if you guessed that Keanu attempted a French-Canadian accent for the first line, then abandoned it for the second line two minutes later ... well, you guessed right. His performance in Youngblood was like MJ's performance in the '82 NCAA Title game -- a glimpse of much greater things to come. It's hard to believe that, only five years later, Swayze and Keanu would be collaborating on "Point Break." Although collaborate could be too strong of a word there).
Of course, since this was a Rob Lowe movie, he needs to start having sex with women as fast as possible; especially after they bang out the "Gratuitous shot of Lowe's naked butt" scene by the 15-minute mark (to fulfill Lowe's contractual requirements). First, he sleeps with his den mother Miss McGill who became every junior hockey player's fantasy for the next 20 years. In real life, den mothers are probably 55-year-old women who look like John Madden. In this movie, den mothers have 38DD's and wear cut-off jean shorts. Not that I'm complaining. The longer relationship happens with Coach Lauter's frisky daughter played by Cynthia Gibb, who was cute in a "I'm so happy to be in this movie that I'll take off my top and throw myself into the sex scene" kinda way. Unlike the typical wet-blanket sports-movie girlfriends, she's pretty likable in this one, despite the fact that she apparently borrowed her haircut from a woman's softball coach.
(The question remains: Was she cute enough to snag the lead female role in this movie? I always assumed that they had someone like Kelly Preston lined up before she dropped out at the last minute, so they had to settle for a cheaper backup plan. If you examine the rest of Gibb's career, her next film was "Malone" with Burt Reynolds yeah, exactly then she went on to 18 years of TV movies. I thought she was out of her league at the time, and looking at how things turned out, I probably wasn't wrong. And as the Sports Gal points out, "I think it's a problem when the lead guy is prettier than the lead girl in a movie." It's not that she wasn't cute she was it's just that Lowe was making movies with Amanda Pays and Demi Moore at this point of his career. This seemed like a step down for him. I'm glad we settled this).
How does the movie play out? Swayze takes Youngblood under his wing; they even have the requisite scene where Swayze gives his "I've been busting my ass for four years so I can be the No. 1 pick" speech, guaranteeing that something terrible will happen to him within the next 15 minutes. That's followed by the first game of the league finals, when Thunder Bay coach Don Chaney orders Racki (a cross between Chong Li and Ogie Oglethorpe at this point) to pull a Todd Bertuzzi on Swayze who ends up in the hospital with a metal plate in his head, although he's somehow able to hold a conversation two hours after the incident.
For some reason, Youngblood is so distraught over this incident as well as the role of violence in hockey or something that he refuses Lauter's order to scrimmage the next day, wailing, "You want to play NOW?," then doing the brooding Rob Lowe thing where he sticks his bottom lip out and looks like he's trying to squeeze a dump (a distant cousin to the Tom Cruise "Should I pursue the Code Red with Col. Jessup" Face). He leaves the team and heads back to the farm, which would have been the weirdest overreaction in Hollywood history if Seth didn't run away from home after Ryan knocked someone up on "The OC."
(And if you think Lauter didn't yell, "You just keep walkin', Youngblood, all the way back to the farm," well, obviously you haven't seen enough sports movies).
Production Value: B-plus
Sports Scenes: C-minus
Chill Scenes (0): F
Climactic Game Scene: C
Final Scene: D
DVD Extras: F-minus
Intentional Comedy: C-minus
Unintentional Comedy: A-plus
Defining Unintentional Comedy Scene: Every scene with Keanu Reeves.
Overall Implausibility: A-minus
Gratuitous Sex/Nudity: A-minus
Lead Actor: B
Supporting cast: B-plus
Wet Blanket Girlfriend/Token Hot Chick: B-minus
Token Fat Guy: None
Token Angry Black Guy: None
That Guy Factor: B-minus
Defining Quote: A-plus ("Wanna go, pretty boy?")
Intangibles: A-minus (for the fact you can't go wrong with a hockey movie)
You can guess how the rest of the film plays out:
A. Youngblood's brother teaches him how to hit a speed bag and a heavy bag.
B. Youngblood does some pull-ups and push-ups.
C. Youngblood's dad tells him, "You can learn to punch in the barn, but you gotta learn how to survive on the ice," then doles out pearls of wisdom like "Gotta be able to keep your balance" and "Gotta be able to keep a guy off, take a few punches."
Within about three days literally Youngblood feels totally comfortable in the fisticuffs department, making it back for the third and deciding game of the finals, where he's greeted by Lauter (who, incredibly, allows him to play) and a bandaged-up Swayze, who tells him, "Forget about Racki, he's not worth it ... just go out there and win the [bleeping] game."
(Important tangent: Considering poor Swayze's head was wrapped, this was about as close as we're coming to a Chill Scene in this movie ... although he did recover sufficiently enough to become the best cooler in the South and clean up the Double Deuce. And while we're here, does anyone else feel like Swayze's career has been remembered a little unfairly? Over a 10-year span, the guy churned out some huge hits "The Outsiders", "Red Dawn", "Youngblood", "Dirty Dancing", "Ghost", "Road House" and "Point Break" and played a Chippendale's dancer in that Pantheon SNL skit with Chris Farley ... then he dressed up in drag for that "Too Wong Foo" movie and everyone turned on him. In retrospect, he was like the Hollywood version of Tom Chambers much more successful than anyone ever realized or wanted to admit. And yet I digress).
In the Big Game, Youngblood scores in the second period, takes an inordinate amount of abuse from Racki even getting a chipped tooth that makes him look like Lloyd Christmas then notches the tying goal with just 10 seconds to play, using the old "Twice around the net" move from NHL '94. (This seems like a good place to mention that the hockey scenes in this movie were about three levels below your average celebrity charity game). As for the ending, I always imagined that the movie's writers had an exchange like this:
Writer No. 1: "OK, so Youngblood ties the game with 10 seconds left. Do we wanna go to OT?"
Writer No. 2: "Nah, let's end it now what if Youngblood wins the ensuing faceoff, somehow ends up with a clear path to the net, then Racki trips him for a penalty shot with three seconds left?"
Writer No. 1: "I love it! Then we'll have him score the goal."
Writer No. 2: "And he still has enough time left in the game to fight Racki again."
Writer No. 1: "Exactly!!!!!"
So there you go. Youngblood and Racki square off with a stick fight, as if nobody even cares that Hamilton just won the Canadian League title. Youngblood exacts his revenge, knocking Racki out cold in one of the most improbable scenes in the history of cinema right up there with Ed Norton dunking in "American History X", Daniel-San beating Dutch in "Karate Kid" and the bus jumping the 60-foot opening in "Speed" before getting carried off the ice on the shoulders of his teammates. And the movie ends with Youngblood and his new girlfriend leaving the rink together, hopefully to get her a new haircut.
Four more random thoughts and then I'm done:
1. Racki's collapse hasn't gotten nearly enough attention over the years first he was responsible for the season-ending penalty shot, then he was knocked out by Rob Lowe. We need to start including him in the "Memorable Sports Goats" list along with Earnest Byner, Steve Bartman, Calvin Schiraldi, Scott Norwood and everyone else.
2. On the flip side, you can't have a better final game than Youngblood did: Two goals in the final 10 seconds of a championship game (giving you a hat trick), plus, you cold-cock the guy who maimed your friend, and you go home with the coach's daughter. The end. Think about it ... what sports movie character topped that performance in a single night? Roy Hobbs and Rocky Balboa had to go to the hospital; Paul Crewe had to go back to jail; Danny Noonan was stuck with Maggie; Jimmy Chitwood was stuck in 1950; Henry Steele still had to transfer; Kelly Leak had to drive the Bears all the way back from Houston to California; I mean, you can keep going down the list, and I guarantee that nobody was riding higher than Dean Youngblood that night.
3. That reminds me, in the mid-'80s, Rob Lowe played a champion rower at Oxford, then he played a hard-partying saxophone player, then he played a hotshot Canadian hockey star ... and nobody ever questioned this chain of events. Strange time to be alive.
4. Given that there have been six original hockey movies made over the past 30 years "Slapshot", "Youngblood", "Mighty Ducks", "Mystery, Alaska", "Miracle" and the delightful "Sudden Death" and all of these movies are loved by hockey fans to varying degrees, it's safe to say that you can't screw up a hockey movie. So let's start making more of them, please. Now that professional hockey has done an Exit Stage Right, we need more Russell Crowes and Paul Newmans. We need more Ed Lauters and Kurt Russells. Heck, we even need more Rob Lowes.
(Just remember to find skating doubles for them).
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.