Mystery, Alaska

Russell Crowe heads up an ensemble cast in this action – drama that’s set in the tiny town of Mystery, Alaska where the local religion is ice hockey.

Written and produced by TV’s mega-man David E. Kelley, the style is very reminiscent of his early show “Picket Fences”. Among the main characters are the mellow and extraordinarily well balanced sheriff (Crowe as John Biebe), the stalwart Judge (Burt Reynolds as Judge Walter Burns), a gung-ho mayor (Colm Meaney as Mayor Scott Pitcher, the jovial, but competent attorney (Maury Chaykin as Bailey Pruitt). Add to that a slew of spouses and quirky townspeople and it really is “Picket Fences” all over again except for the hockey element.

From the start, ice hockey plays center stage. It’s what all the men do or think about and what all the women watch or cheer about. The town even has it’s weekly Saturday game where Mystery’s team plays against each other on the local ice pond. Crowe’s sheriff is the team captain who gets bumped to give a new kid a chance to prove his stuff. John Biebe is not happy; after all it’s a good part of his life.

One day, former Mystery resident Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria) who’s now a TV network Producer working with the National Hockey League gets an article about his old hometown and its obsession with ice hockey printed in Sports Illustrated. He shows up in Mystery unannounced and is now talking about having the team play an exhibition against the New York Rangers. Wouldn’t that be great! So now all these small town hockey fiends are thinking about the big time and getting their chance to pummel some Ranger hockey pucks. Everyone but Judge Burns, that is, who thinks they don’t have a prayer and will lose their dignity and their illusions in one quick match. Mayor Pitcher, on the other hand, is going all out for the deal. He has his own visions of what’s right for the town and its economy.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Biebe gets asked to coach his own team. He makes the best of it despite deep disappointment. But have no fear, a turnaround for Biebe is just around the ice rink.

Subplots involve John’s wife Donna (Mary McCormack) having been romantically involved with Charlie Danner back in High School; a shooting incident involving the team best player and infidelity on the part of Mayor Pitcher’s wife Jane (Lolita Davidovich) with yet another player named Skank Martin (Ron Eldard) and a skank he really is. The only one that’s half-way interesting and moderately played out is the John and Donna relationship and even that is second fiddle to the almighty hockey game that’s brewing between Mystery and the Rangers.

So, overall, it’s kind of slow going for the most part with half-baked characters although I must say I really did enjoy Burt Reynolds’ subtle performance. Crowe certainly didn’t need to be in this film. A decent no-name actor could have carried it just as well – that’s the beauty of ensemble pieces. But my guess is that he was looking for lighter fare after his uptight role in “The Insider” – in fact he still looked quite chunky, probably hadn’t dropped all of that 35 pounds he gained for that role.

Of course the action heats up as preparations begin for the big game and when the Rangers appear you’ve got some good hockey play with professional puck by puck calls and speedy skating sequences.

Lotta says: Bottom line – if you don’t like visions of cold, snow and hockey, forget this film – it’s pretty much what it’s all about intertwined with mild to moderate drama (before the big game heightens tensions).