Charles Biname’s biopic of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, “the Babe Ruth of hockey,” could not be squarer even if it were made during the 1937-1955 era it portrays. Every bit as single-minded as its French-Canadian protagonist, pic drowns a potentially interesting story in careful literalism and elaborate period detail. Looking suspiciously like George Reeves’ Superman and about as emotive, Roy Dupuis’ humorless hero overcomes physical frailty and social injustice to conquer in the name of francophone equality. Pic, which opened Dec. 1 at Gotham’s Cinema Village, boasts dazzling hockey action, but its off-ice piousness makes for tough sledding for non-Canucks.
Ken Scott’s overdetermined script permits no event, no emotion, no moment not absolutely essential to his straight-ahead narrative, as every character displays one trait that will slot him or her into a preordained role.
Against a backdrop of changing times as World War II begins, escalates and ends — Biname often uses black-and-white or color-leached exteriors to allow for generous chunks of documentary footage — the grown-up Richard (Dupuis) faces two major challenges: to prove himself as a hockey player, and to stand up for himself as a French-Canadian.
This dual focus could have granted depth and richness to the characters. Instead, each obstacle is grimly set up and heroically knocked down. When everyone but gruff, hardline Montreal Canadiens coach Dick Irvin (an excellent Stephen McHattie) doubts Richard’s stamina, Richard spectacularly proves them wrong.
Meanwhile, in his private life, Richard’s father-in-law (Michel Barrette) mirrors society’s skepticism, opposing his daughter’s marriage to a potential loser, while steadfast wife Lucille (Julie LeBreton) alternates between two stereotypical emotions: pride for Richard’s accomplishments and fear for his safety.
Swallowing the injustices he and his Francophone teammates daily confront as second-class citizens even after he becomes a superstar, Richard at first pridefully refuses to ask anything of anyone. He is finally driven to speak out through a newspaper column (though never clearly enough to elucidate the political situation for non-Quebecois auds), and takes to the airwaves to quiet the populace when his suspension by a bigoted Anglo commissioner sets off ethnic rioting.
Pic partly compensates for its lame predictability on land with its precision and excitement on the ice. With a wealth of pro hockey players in the cast, Richard’s speed, agility and ability to maneuver over, under, around and through opponents resonates vividly even to the uninitiated. Helmer Biname excels at presenting the brutal physicality of the sport in its pre-armor days as an experiential rush, going well beyond any mere validation or condemnation of violence.
Tech credits are pro, though Michel Cusson’s swelling score skirts parody.