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The DVD box has a quote calling The Rocket, “the Gladiator of Hockey Movies.” I’m not sure I can agree with this, but that is not a bad thing. I’ll admit to not being blown away by Gladiator like most people are. Instead, if I were to compare this film, about French Canadian superstar Maurice “Rocket” Richard, to anything, I’d say it is the Cinderella Man of hockey movies. There are many comparisons that could be made between Braddock and Richard as far as uniting a nation against all odds; The Rocket’s start actually happened during the Depression as well. Where this story sets itself apart, however, is in the racial undertones involved. Even in Quebec, the French-speaking citizens were second-class and mocked, slurred, and demeaned without regard whatsoever. To see how the NHL not only allowed it to happen in their league, but also actually allowed other teams to seek out and injure their best player is unconscionable. Richard was not only a hero in his sport for standing up against the establishment, but also for an entire race of people looking for a voice. To work on a sports movie level, as well as a political document of history is an amazing feat, and this film pulls it off with flying colors.

I admit to knowing very little of this story on my favorite sport during the 1940s and 1950s. To see the stuff that went on involving such big names behind the scenes such as Campbell, Conn Smythe, etc. is incomprehensible. How could they have allowed the game to get that bad? Especially in a time period when the coaches had to explain to their players that the league risked folding unless they brought an exciting product to the ice, (sound familiar to the short straw the game has gotten today?). The referees all had an agenda and no one took the time to try and right the ship. Then comes this working class machinist to a Montreal training camp, blows away the competition and even then almost doesn’t make the cut. Without coach Dick Irvin sticking by him, even after an ankle injury that was about to end his career during his rookie season, who knows what would have happened to the NHL, because Richard carried it on his shoulders and made it into a professional sport again. He filled the seats, not only in Montreal, but also in every other stadium of the league during away games; he broke the goal scoring record, being the first to have 50 in 50 games; and he never backed down to a confrontation on or off the ice. If a goon came after him with threats, Richard would throw the first punch, and it usually would be the last.

Stephen McHattie and Roy Dupuis are superb as Irvin and Richard respectively. Despite the tough love relationship, these two would be nothing without each other and their drive—their need—to win would not be stopped. Dupuis pulls off everything asked of him, between the accents, (learning English slowly improves his use of the language), the hockey skills, (watching him roof those backhands after his ankle recovery is impressive), and the emotional courage to stand up for people’s rights, even if it was just a game, (as his barber says, the French Canadians have forgot what winning is and even if it is just on the ice, it’s a good thing to remind them). It is also a very nice touch seeing all the familiar faces in supporting roles. From Mike Ricci to Vincent Lecavalier to bruiser Sean Avery, they all handle themselves well and add a little extra to the proceedings.

Without the solid story being told, The Rocket would be just your standard run-of-the-mill sports bio-pic. I realize this and that is why I like it even more. It took the time to be more than just about a career, but instead to be about a life that changed a game and a country. Despite this fact, though, it is the visual style that I can’t help but remember. You believe you are there in the darkened hockey rinks with the use of soft focus and close-ups. The uniforms are amazing to watch and the old padding, sticks, glove, etc really bring you there. Even the use of black and white to start each transition in time, slowly turning to color worked for me. Clichéd and easy, true, but it just fit the aesthetic perfectly. Call me surprised when viewing the filmography of cinematographer Pierre Gill and seeing the only movie I recognized was the tragic The Covenant. Hopefully he will get some more quality work after people start checking this film out. Completed in 2005, it took two years to finally reach theatres and video. I guess it is appropriate to the story, the “little” French Canadian needing to fight in order to show what it is made of. Thankfully it did finally see the light of day, because there aren’t many sports films I can think of that moved me as much as this one did.

The Rocket 9/10

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photography:
[1] François Langlois Vallières as young Maurice Richard
[2] Roy Dupuis as Maurice Richard

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