Mystery, Alaska (1999)

mystery alaska

“Women don’t like to be referred to as fat mammals”

The Scoop: 1999 R, directed by Jay Roach and starring Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, and Mary McCormack

Tagline: A Small Town on the Outskirts of Greatness

Summary Capsule: Mountain men take on city boys in the grudge match of the century… don’t forget to back the toasty undies!


Justin’s rating: Resisting… temptation to use… “puck” as a substitute for bad words

Justin’s review: I don’t think the average American thinks much about Alaska at all. If it comes up in conversation, it usually has to do with an oil spill, the wildlife preserve, or the latest grisly moose attack. I’ve been a long-time supporter of the conspiracy theory that explains Alaska’s presence: It’s a top-secret military project to take over Canada. Every morning, before most people get up, Alaska moves its border two feet east and south. Sure, it might take us 170,250 years, but it will be done! Seriously, dig out an atlas sometime and look at Alaska. Notice how many of the towns are just single black dots? They don’t have any roads going into or out of them. Ya gotta fly or ride moose to vacation there. So the first thing that struck me about Mystery, Alaska was mild curiosity… what goes on up there?

According to this movie (which I take as absolute gospel), every small isolated burg in Alaska has formed a fraternal bond stronger and quirkier than anything on Twin Peaks. In the small mountain town of Mystery, they’re obsessed about the weekly Saturday hockey game, which provides them with enough distraction so they don’t resort to cannibalism or anything. Sheriff John (Russell Crowe) has recently been kicked out of the famous game, right at the time when a Sports Illustrated article comes out featuring the team, and the NY Rangers then challenge the Mystery team to a match. What’s a town to do, to fight for its dignity and right to party in thermal underwear?

Mystery, Alaska is two movies in one relatively unknown cinematic package. The first is the big sports movie, and you can’t get much better than hockey for a sports movie. It’s fast-moving, there are fights and blood and teeth, and there’s nothing like rooting for the underdog in a film where the underdog is portrayed as a hero. It’s nearly laughable to see this team from the sticks against an NHL team, but there’s a measure of honor and spirit that makes it work. The game itself is just a very small part of the film, but it’s one of the most memorable movie sports games that I’ve ever seen. Plus, when Little Richard does his stuff by singing long enough to torture the visiting team… well, it is at least cracked smile-worthy.

The other movie of Mystery, Alaska is the rather special wildlife study of the town and its inhabitants. They’re slightly crazy, in a good way. Whether it’s accidentally shooting a Price-Mart representative in the foot, having sex in a snowtruck, hijacking a Zamboni, or sliding butt-naked into a snow drift, these townfolk are too surreal to be real, but they manage to create a town that you’d like to visit. As long as you can skate. You honestly won’t believe the stars and cameos here — Beth Littleford, Mike Meyers, Burt Reynolds, Colm Meaney — it’s a smorgesboard of “Hey! I know that guy! He won’t return my calls!”

My favorite character is Charlie, played by Hank Azaria (who did another noteworthy turn in Mystery Men). Charlie is the townie who got away, all the way to NYC, and who also is the one who comes back bringing the Rangers. Azaria masters a tough role, as a literal outcast from Mystery who nobody particularly likes. Sure, he’s motivated by self-interest and cares little about the town that he deserted, but Charlie also isn’t the prick everyone pegs him to be. His subplot of still being deeply in love with Johnnie’s wife, Donna, has a sweet and realistic ring to it. Just like the town of Mystery, Charlie craves respect and he ain’t getting any.

It’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama, and it’s not a sports movie… but it contains all of these things. It plays out like a really good book, and if you know me, that’s a compliment. Maybe Mystery, Alaska is about seeing your neighbors, loving their love and hurting their hurt. Maybe Mystery, Alaska is The Mighty Ducks all grown up. But maybe, JUST MAYBE, Mystery, Alaska is about a butt-load of snow, and how it feels when your nose boogers freeze.

PoolMan’s rating: Best Grapes impression ever.

PoolMan’s review: A Canadian’s place in the world is a curious one, indeed. We’re not as rich as the Americans. We’re not as exotic as the Australians. We’re not as french as the French. No, our mindset is entirely different, and tough to describe. But if I’ve ever seen a movie that describes the Canuck condition without actually being a Canadian movie, this is it. Trust me.

Canadiana (yes, it’s a word) is best embodied in traditions no one else understands. We wear ugly hats because they came free in our beer. We reserve Saturday nights for one very, very special song that ANY of us, coast to coast, could probably sing for you (all the Canucks reading this right now: hum the Hockey Night in Canada theme!). We erupt with pleasure when we hear Stomping Tom Connors. We have Thanksgiving in October, for crying out loud!

So a movie like Mystery, Alaska instantly strikes a great chord with me. It’s all about a secluded group of people that look enough like normal Americans, but still choose to clothe themselves in what almost certainly was once a raccoon. The Mysterians (ooh, now there’s a cool townie name) revel in their strangeness and their worship of all things hockey. Nobody understands them, and nobody really tries. They are essentially Canucks. Ask Justin.

The hockey movie tradition is a big thing up here. And I’ll tell you straight out, this is probably the best one since Slap Shot (those damned Mighty Duck movies can take a flying leap). Russell Crowe may not have strained any acting muscles here (he’s in full “grunts count as lines” mode), but he’s effective as the one guy who keeps his sanity in the midst of the media circus that descends on a small town challenged to an exhibition game by the NHL’s New York Rangers. And what a cast around him, full of recognizable faces. Colm Meaney, Hank Azaria, Burt Reynolds, Mike Myers and Mike McKean all bob about in varying degrees of importance, but you’re guaranteed to see a host of people you know. (And for you Leaf fans out there, there’s even some stock footage of Tie Domi beating the living hell out of some Rangers.)

As a sports movie, Mystery has heart and a surprising lack of cliches (there are some, but the big ones aren’t there). As a drama, there are interesting side stories, particularly Azaria’s heartached city slicker and Meaney’s suspicious husband. And as a comedy, there’s a nearly naked man sliding a good 20 feet on black ice into a snow bank (oh… my… GOD… that would hurt), a concussed young player deliriously talking about his lack of sexual prowess, and a virtual remake of Doug Dorsey from The Cutting Edge in the form of Skank. Trying to be three movies at once is usually a surefire way to kill your production, but Mystery, Alaska pulls through with its pride intact. This is a movie that you really should try to see at least once.

Now if I could just explain why Canada spells ‘colour’ with a U…

Canuck Alert! The film was shot in the town of Canmore, Alberta and Banff National Park, Alberta (ie. not Alaska). And keep a lookout for Canadian icon Mike Myers in an incredibly-funny-to-Canadians-but-probably-nonsense-to-anyone-who’s-never-seen-HNIC sendup of Don Cherry in the guise of Donnie Shulzhoffer.


Lissa’s rating: Now I get why everyone says Russell Crowe is so hot.

Lissa’s review: I’m not a hockey girl, myself. I like manly sports in general, but boxing and things where the primary goal is to beat on your opponent are my favorites, and even then I’m only a casual observer. But hockey has the beating-on-your-opponent thing as a secondary goal and is a heck of a lot more interesting than baseball, so if I was going to watch a professional sport without prompting, hockey would probably be it. It’s fast and exciting, and doesn’t involve armpit hair like basketball does.

Mystery, Alaska was one of those movies I’ve never seen and never was dying to see, but wasn’t against seeing, either. I vaguely knew it was about hockey and set in Alaska (can you see the Ph.D. at work here?), and it was supposed to be pretty good. Okay. The fact that Russell Crowe was in it isn’t any great motivator, because I’ve never thought he was all that attractive or an incredible actor, and frankly, this movie didn’t change my opinion about the second. (I mean, seriously, the guy seems to play similar characters over and over. If he plays a character that laughs on occasion, maybe I’ll be convinced of his acting prowess. But the hair in this! Very nice!) And to top it all off, I’ve been informed that I now despise the Rangers. Something about living in Philly. Okay, whatever.

However, Mystery, Alaska has a lot of things I do like. Hank Azaria. Skating. Not overly cliched love stories. An actress that it took us the entire movie to place. (John’s wife Donna, played by Mary McCormack, who also played Kate Harper on West Wing.) Underdogs. Interesting setting. A town I’d actually like to live in. (True story — I once seriously considered moving to Alaska for a few years. I was in the middle of grad school, and I mean, I have a degree in fuel science, with my specialty being petroleum fuels. And if I could move my family back to Maine, I would in a heartbeat. I still think I might have liked living in Alaska for a while at that point in time, but it’s not like I regret the way my life worked out.) And it was funny, and sweet, and had some suitable violence.

Since I’m the third one to review this movie, I get to skip the plot summary and the cast and all that. And it’s kind of funny that I am reviewing it, because I actually agree a lot with Justin and Pooly. It’s a good, fun movie that’s really enjoyable. It’s solid. The acting is decent, the storyline is relatively creative and not too unbelievable, the hockey is fun to watch, and some of the subplots are awesome. There’s a realistic ending, in more ways than one, and the characters are actually real people, sort of. I mean, you’d actually know people like this, even when they’re being a little oddballish.

In a way, I would put Mystery, Alaska on the same level as The Cutting Edge. It’s a movie that both genders can enjoy thoroughly and makes you feel happy at the end of it without drowning you in gooeyness. But what I really want to know is what happened when Skank saw the sign declaring the holder was pregnant.

The level of fashion sense in this room is staggering
The level of fashion sense in this room is staggering


  • Mike Meyers, who has a cameo in this film, has teamed up with director Jay Roach for both of the Austin Powers films.
  • The “Hi Skank I’m Pregnant!” sign in the crowd
  • There are a full 21 names in the end credits listed as “Hockey Player”.
  • I asked a search engine very nicely for trivia on Alaska, and I was smothered by useless information overload. Among the more interesting facts: The coastline of Alaska is longer than the coast line of the entire United States; Alaska is two and one half times larger that the state of Texas (yet Alaska has no counties); There are more caribou in Alaska than people; The University of Alaska covers four time zones; Juneau, Alaska is the only state capital not accessible by car; There are no worms in Alaska; and Alaska was the only U.S. state invaded by the Japanese in WWII (a couple of the small islands were occupied).

Groovy Quotes

Mayor: And they’re sending us a Zamboni!
Donna: Oo, a Zamboni. I’m getting wet just thinking about it.

Judge: Two things we’ve always had in Mystery is our dignity and our illusions. I suggest we cling to both.

Skank: I play hockey and I fornicate, ’cause those are the funnest things to do in cold weather.

John: Women don’t like to be refered to as fat mammals, Skank.
Skank: I’d have never have said it to her face.

Donnie Shulzhoffer: Hey, you know where a guy can go for a rub n’ a tug around here?

[Judge Burns walks in on his wife and teary-eyed daughter talking about her boyfriend]
Judge: I think I have a right to know what’s going on in my own home!
Joanne: If you do not leave, I swear I will tell you what we’re talking about.
Judge: Hm. [pause] Right. [backs out of room]

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Cutting Edge
  • Out Cold
  • The Mighty Ducks

One comment

  1. Alaska being the only state invaded by Japan is tehcnically inaccurate, as Alaska wasn’t a state back then.

    Alaska also has no snakes, something I imagine would appeal to Drew.

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