Buena Vista/Buena Vista .
R4 . COLOR . 119 mins .
M15+ . PAL
No matter what the box office might have to say about it, David E. Kelley - the man behind television shows The Practice, Ally McBeal and Chicago Hope (among others) - sure can pen a rollicking good feature film. In 1999, Kelley's injection of wry dialogue and quirky characters into established B-film genres resulted in two light, yet highly entertaining, pieces of cinematic fluff - Lake Placid, a film that breathed new life and a healthy dose of black comedy into the '50s monster movie, and Mystery, Alaska, a film that took a stab at the tried and trusted sports-film formula. After a long wait, the second of the pair has finally arrived on Region 4 DVD.
Frozen gonads - funny.
In the town of Mystery Alaska, blanketed almost year round in ice and snow, there's only two things to do: fornicate and play hockey. And in a town where kids learn to skate before they can walk, the citizens of Mystery live, eat and breathe the game. Each and every Saturday, the entire populace suspends their fornicating to gather for the 'Saturday game' in which the local team divides and plays each other on the local pond. For the team members, chosen by a council of town elders and treated as virtual celebrities, their places on the team are continually threatened by the town's raft of young up-and-comers just itching for a shot. In fact, after a record 13 years in the Saturday game, town Sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe) has just lost his spot to talented teenager Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott). And the timing could not have been worse for John. Charles Danner (Hank Azaria), former resident of Mystery and old flame of John's wife Donna (Mary McCormack), is back in town; his Sports Illustrated article on the legendary skills of the Mystery players sparking the interest of the NHL and with it a proposed exhibition game with NHL heavyweights the New York Rangers.
"What the f*ck ass, f*ck of a bum f*ck, shithole
town is this?"
Not surprisingly, the town is thrown into a tizz and the body of the film deals with Mystery's preparation for, and the ultimate playing of, the big game. Of course genre convention dictates the structure of this classic David versus Goliath story, but it's the reaction of the town's many personalities to the upcoming event, and the dry-witted interplay between them, that comprises the real heart of the film. There's subplots aplenty, most of them in one way or another related to sex, and although Hollywood has milked the quirky small town thing to death, somehow I never seem to get tired of it. At times laugh-out-loud funny, at other touching and exciting, Mystery works and works well; an unusual combination of several familiar elements that is much more than the sum of its parts.
Kiss me Ranger boy..
That the film works so well is down to the talented cast. As you might expect, the supporting cast is full of small town oddballs, but it's the strong, and more importantly genuine, performances in the lead roles that set the film apart. As usual Russell Crowe is solid in the lead, effortlessly slipping into the role of a sensitive mountain man whose bruised ego has led to all manner of self doubt. Maybe Russell was a king of the roller disco as a kid, for he pulls off the skating like a pro. As the town judge and lonely voice of sanity in the turmoil of the approaching game, Burt Reynolds is also impressively impassive, as is Mary McCormack who generates buckets of empathy with the suitably adorable girl-next-door thing. In a piss-funny cameo, Mike Myers also makes an uncredited appearance towards the end of the film as famous hockey commentator Donnie Shulzhoffer.
Provided with a spanking anamorphic (2.35:1) transfer on a dual-layer disc, Mystery, Alaska looks fantastic. Drawn from crystal clean source material and transferred without any hint of the compression process, the image is sharp with only one noticeable aliasing artefact (moiré on that old chestnut, the ubiquitous venetian blinds). The depth of detail is fantastic, and continues into the deepest shadows. Every hair on every fur lined hat and coat, every whisker on every stubbled face, every curl of mist from every lip; every detail is replicated perfectly. Filmed in a remote area of the Canadian wilderness, the film is filled with stunning mountain scenery and nearly every scene in this film has something spectacular to offer visually. Colours, meanwhile, show vividly against the blanket of white snow that continually covers the landscape, the town, and its people. The greens of pine forests nestled at the mountain’s feet, the deep cold blues of clear winter skies, not to mention the jerseys of the New York Rangers, all leap from the screen while looking natural and perfectly balanced. All in all it’s a near-perfect job from Hollywood Pictures, and a great compliment to an entertaining film.
Whilst endowed with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (and dubs in French and Spanish), this medium budget sports-comedy hardly makes use of the six channels afforded it. A very dialogue-centric film, the centre channel gets the majority of the ones and zeroes on offer here, with the remainder of the soundstage remaining very front-dominant. There’s tons of foley effects, such as the swooshing of skates, the hum of skidoos and the humping of residents to keep the front channels busy, but in general the separation of channels across the front is low and directional effects are minimal. The rear channels aren’t left completely out in the cold, with the score - which genre convention dictates should increase in dramatic tone as the big game approaches - going absolutely ape-shit as it approaches its climax, mixed to the rear and adding a sporadically immerse element to the film. Even this mix, however, seems a little meek in the rear, with the majority of the score still emanating even more boldly from the front channels. While the rear channels don’t see much ice time, the sub is kept busy almost continuously throughout, adding it’s particular voice to all manner of machinery, walloping cross-checks and the score’s many timpani rolls. All in all, not the most dynamic soundtrack you’ve ever heard, but a serviceable compliment to the film nonetheless.
As yet another budget-entry release in our region, there's not a single extra included here for fans to savour. It's a real shame because Mystery has cult hit written all over it.
Mystery Alaska is one of those surprising sleeper titles that you come across every once and a while. With great comedic writing, a solid combination of well known genres, and great performances from a strong cast, it is at times laugh-out-loud funny, an exciting sports film, and a reasonable character piece. Taking its rightful place in my collection alongside Kelley's Lake Placid, it's a light yet highly enjoyable film that's already ensconced as one of my favourites. Combining David E. Kelley, Russell Crowe and ice hockey, who could possibly ask for more? Highly recommended.