A fond look back at a terrible sports movie
As an '80s kid, you only knew two hockey movies: Slap Shot, and Youngblood. But Slap Shot didn't belong to you. It was a 1970s movie starring a 1960s actor, and while its Cinema's Greatest Decade brand of enlightened buffoonery unarguably made it the better of the two by a Big Country Bryant Reeves mile, you don't get to choose what films your generation gets to claim as its own. Part of the reason I'm completely baffled by hockey is that Dallas didn't get an NHL team until 1993. The rest, I blame on Gen-X's hockey movie being Youngblood
The quick synopsis: Dean Youngblood (Rob Lowe) is the 17-year-old son of an upstate New York farmer (Eric Nesterenko, who played approximately 427 seasons for the Blackhawks). Because fancy Manhattan restaurants were still following the Food-Service-Corporation-To-Table trend, Dean's dad barely ekes out a living. Against his wishes (he needs Dean on the farm even though he's terrible at farm work), Dean heads up to Ontario to try out for the Hamilton Mustangs junior league hockey team. He skates very fast, and is a freakish puck handler, but thanks to disapproval from veteran Derek Sutton (Patrick Swayze) -- and other players beating the skin off his face -- he learns some very valuable lessons about some things. He also does the coach's daughter
Eventually he triumphs, because even if your name was Lucas, that's just what you did in the 1980s
Seems like a winning formula -- or at least winning enough -- but it wasn't. Coming in at $15,448,384, Youngblood was the 57th highest grossing movie of 1986, a year Tom Cruise dominated with Top Gun ($176,781,728), The Color of Money ($52,293,982, a few million going towards an Oscar turn from Slap Shot's Paul Newman), and Legend, which despite flopping still finished one slot ahead of Youngblood at $15,502,112. By comparison, the next generation's hockey movie, Mighty Ducks, grossed a respectable $50,752,337, enough to spawn two sequels, an animated movie, an animated TV series, and an actual hockey team.
On paper, the all-star cast should've cemented a classic: Lowe, Swayze, and, hey, is that Keanu Reeves? Yes, it is. But in '86 Keanu was nobody, and this part didn't help. As the French-Canadian goalie "Heaver", he paves the way for Wilmer Valderrama's "sexually naive wacky foreigner" Summer Catch role. This makes sense because in real life Keanu was an imposing high school goalie nicknamed "The Wall" -- and because only 5% of Ontarians are "Franco-Ontarian", making them seem like wacky foreigners even in Hamilton. But then again, it doesn't make sense, because Keanu's accent is so ass-y that moviegoers weren't aware he was playing a French-Canadian. Also, no matter what the Internet says, there's no way Keanu Reeves was an imposing high school goalie nicknamed "The Wall"
Swayze wasn't quite Swayze yet. Born in 1952, he was a 34-year-old still trapped in projects whose breakout stars were teenagers and actors who looked like teenagers. He didn't reach icon status until Roadhouse and Point Break gave him a chance to shine in adult movies mainly enjoyed by teenagers. (Ghost helped too, but really, who cares.)
As for Rob Lowe, he never seemed like a full member of the Brat Pack, mainly because he was never in a John Hughes movie, unless you count St. Elmo's Fire, which was directed by Joel Schumacher. In Youngblood he's more pinup model than actor; his performance makes '90s Keanu seem like Roberto Benigni. Lowe was actually great in St. Elmo's -- how many young actors can pull off "maybe being this good looking isn't healthy for me or anyone around me" -- but he didn't really find his groove until he went completely against type torturing future weirdo James Spader in 1990's Bad Influence. And by 1990, the 1980s were over
Now, on to the film, starting with the primary responsibility of any sports flick: to capture the underlying spirit of its sport. This does not require 100% accuracy, whether it's Moneyball, or a teen-pleaser from a director whose previous high point was Hot Dog… The Movie (which, to be fair, was amazing). Youngblood arguably had a higher bar as the decade's only shot at relating the joys of puck-slapping -- and because the director, Peter Markle, actually played hockey, first at Yale, then for a year with the US National Team -- but even if you consider that burden unfair, Youngblood still falls well short of getting you excited about the game whose most recent lockout nearly toppled Canada's economy
Staying on the ice for now, here's a summation of Youngblood's impossible-to-decipher statement about what hockey's all about
The movie opens with Dean Youngblood skating a heavily choreographed routine on a darkened rink as spotlights cut through a fog of dry ice. Basically, hockey is introduced as Frozen Flashdance
Jump to the tryout. Coach Murray Chadwick (Ed Lauter, who you know from every movie ever made) needs one more body to get through the rest of the season, which by this point is only about five games. It's an unimpressive lot ("Where'd you get these guys, Ray, Mexico?"), except for Dean -- who instantly emerges as the league's most dynamic skater/scorer -- and "Racki", a 198lb bearded enforcer played by real-life 180lb minor leaguer George Finn, who skated for everyone from the Toledo Goaldiggers to the Richmond Hill Dynes, which is either a team from Richmond Hill whose mascot is the Dynes, or a team from Richmond whose mascot is the Hill Dynes
For Dean, the price of being the next Gretzky is Murray Chadwick making you face off against Racki, who proceeds to stick-thrash Youngblood's face -- a gruesome move fully sanctioned by the coach. In an act of sheer will not fully appreciated by Markle, who must have considered himself one unimpeachable bad ass during his playing days, Dean gets up, skates after Racki, gets knocked down again, gets up defiantly, gets challenged to a fistfight, accepts, loses badly.
Dean's listed at a spindly 160lbs -- and again, he's 17. Racki is described as the biggest animal in a league full of animals. He also looks very old (though Finn's only a year older than Rob Lowe). Their respective stat lines
Racki, 1985, full season: 15 goals 22 assists. 378 penalty minutes.
Dean Youngblood, 1986 season to date with previous team we never see him play for: 92 goals. 125 assists. 14 penalty minutes.
The mere fact that a gashed & concussed Dean doesn't back down to a dude who's paid to sit in the penalty box should be impressive. But despite his toughness -- and his awesome scoring abilities -- the veterans watching from the stands conclude that Dean's getting sent home. In fact, Coach Chadwick keeps him, but still refuses to acknowledge that he has any balls ("He fights like an old lady!"). The reason Racki's cut and Dean stays? Because Chadwick needs "someone who can put the puck in the net."
This is where Youngblood's take on hockey's violence-vs-skill debate really starts to get confusing. Chadwick -- a former NHL enforcer who clearly values brawlers -- already has someone who can put the puck in the net. Derek Sutton's scored 93 goals this season. That's a ton of pucks in nets! And with Racki gone, the Mustang roster lists a total of zero enforcers.
So we now know that potentially hospitalizing stick-play is just part of the game, and that the ability to not just fight, but to win fights even when you're tiny, is of paramount importance. We also know that stocking your roster with someone who can win fights (not to mention protect scorers who can't) has minimal value
At Dean's first practice, we learn that he doesn't want it bad enough, because even though he gets to the puck first during drills, he allows himself to be slammed against the wall by a purposefully trailing Sutton, who's against that sort of cheap behavior except when he's doing it. Despite not having muscled himself out of the very-talented-pussy doghouse, Coach Chadwick adds Dean to Sutton's line right before the next game. He's quickly called for offsides. Is the movie going to revolve around the lesson that, no matter how skilled you are, you still have to play by the rules? Not so much: Dean never commits another rules violation, and immediately after the penalty develops a brilliant chemistry with Derek Sutton, ultimately scoring himself but along the way showing a willingness to pass the puck back and forth until the best shot opens up. So he understands teamwork!
Which must be meaningless, because Coach Chadwick benches him. Granted, Dean had been flirting with his daughter, but if that was the problem, why did Chadwick start him in the first place? No, Dean got benched because in hockey, even though a team is supposed to be a family, teamwork is…not good?
This sends Dean into an abrupt spiral of moderate darkness where he starts to mildly question his love of the game. Later, in Sutton's apartment, Derek senseis him with the news that "It's more than just skating fast and shooting bullets… You gotta learn to play by their rules." We never learn what those rules are, or even who "they" are. It's possible that "they" love violence, which would explain why the refs refuse to call penalties after even the most flagrant incidents. Or "they" just hate Hamilton, because the refs do love calling penalties on the Mustangs, especially after not calling penalties on the other team.
So now, the devastating game against the bruising Thunder Bay Bombers, whose scumbag coach unabashedly uses his new star Racki to wreak destruction, then shrugs his shoulders like, "What? I didn't see anything. And tell Charles Durning I'm gaining 40lbs, then gunning for all the short-fat-guy roles where the character's either Jewish or Italian." In the first period, Thunder Bay demolishes the Mustangs with their patented brand of unpunished illegal play. Racki checks Sutton into the wall in a manner very similar to the way Sutton earlier checked Dean, except now we're supposed to be indignant. After a rousing locker room speech, the Mustangs come out playing like men, leading to a bench-clearing brawl heartily endorsed by Coach Chadwick, who also fights a fat heckler in the stands because the heckler's friend threw beer on him.
In the third period, Sutton gets a clean shot on Racki, leading to a winning Youngblood goal. As Sutton happily skates towards the post-goal hug-fest, Racki catches up to him Marty McSorley-like and slashes his legs, causing him to fall back and bash his head so hard he has to get a metal plate in his skull.
Fighting is fun and rough play's exciting but this is definitely over the line, right? One of those cases where a court declares an act to be so unsportsmanlike that it becomes assault? The puck wasn't even in play. Sutton is bleeding so profusely that Dean's hand also gets covered in blood, a Lady Macbethy symbol of guilt for not immediately confronting Racki and bravely getting his ass kicked again. Even Coach Chadwick looks shocked -- not fighting mad, because clearly maiming is a lesser offense than beer-throwing, but still, shocked!
The refs don't punish Racki, and his fatty coach just slaps him on the back. As soon as the Mustangs get back to Hamilton, Chadwick orders them to suit up for a grueling post-game practice, "No pucks, contact drills". They're being punished for…winning despite Chadwick being a lousy GM? Failing to put a pillow under Patrick Swayze's head
At this point, Dean asks the only sensible question in the movie: "Why?" Chadwick tells him if he's not on the ice in five minutes he can go back to the farm. Dean defiantly does that. His brother Kelly -- Jim Youngs, who provided Footloose the truly hate-able bad guy this movie sorely lacks -- mocks him for taking a principled stand against a sport that refuses to suspend players for attempted homicide. Kelly doesn't defend Racki exactly. His point is more that the people who run hockey will always be miserable bastards who care nothing for human life, and Dean is an ingrate for not appreciating the chance those bastards have given him to get his head split open for no good reason. When Kelly -- who years ago washed out with the same team -- tries to motivate Dean by telling him that he's considering driving up there and seeing if they'll let him take Dean's roster spot, Dean sullenly yells "You wouldn't have made it anyway. All you can do is fight!"
So now instead of Jennifer Beals from Flashdance, Dean is some sort of Billy Elliot figure the boys all ridicule for his girlish love of scoring 92 goals and 125 assists while racking up only 14 penalty minutes. At least that's a dynamic though: a martyr for artistry making a stand against hockey's brutes -- a less-fun version of Naked Michael Ontkean in Slap Shot
That dynamic lasts about 30 seconds, until Dean accepts Kelly's offer to teach him to box, and he starts doing curls in the barn until his biceps get so big his weight shoots up to 162lbs, and then his dad teaches him how to pull a shirt over a dude's head and punch him in the face while he's defenseless, and Dean's all like "Why didn't you help me before!" and his dad's like "I didn't want another son to get hurt! And why do I have a Canadian accent if I'm an upstate New York farmer!"
Armed with larger biceps, better combination punches, and the shirt-face trick, Dean heads back to rejoin the team in time for their season-ender against Thunder Bay -- that is, if Coach Chadwick lets him!
Coach Chadwick lets him. Dean plays really well. Even though he didn't refuse to fight before and was just bad at fighting, now he refuses to fight despite the many months of fighting lessons that for plot purposes were condensed into a few days. At the end of the game, Racki pulls him down from behind during a breakaway opportunity. The ref who works every game in this league finally blows the whistle in Hamilton's favor, which makes no sense because Bill Yoast didn't even threaten to expose him after declaring that he didn't give a damn about getting into the Virginia High School Hall of Fame. In a penalty shot scene that explicitly evokes the opening choreographed-dry-ice-skating, Rob Lowe goes one-on-one against the goalie and wins the game.
Except there are 10 seconds left. Coach Chadwick congratulates him for scoring even though technically he should be angry with him for not fighting enough. Chadwick wants to sub in a teammate who's making his first on-camera appearance, but Dean refuses to come out. Chadwick says something to the effect of, "There are 10 seconds left, you've succeeded in every possible way (except fisticuffs and high-sticking) and won my respect, the game's over." Dean nods in Racki's direction and says "The game's not over." Chadwick basically says, "You don't have to do this, because you can't win, and even though I was angry at you for getting beaten up by this guy earlier, you're stupid now for thinking you can beat this guy up." But then he relents and lets Dean go prove that he's good at the part of hockey that's at once the most important thing but also not worth it
Dean kicks Racki's ass. He even does the shirt-pull move. Everybody's really happy. So is every American teenager who doesn't live in Boston, because now they finally understand what hockey's all about but not all about. Bring on the Phoenix Coyotes.
Youngblood didn't stop with stunting the development of a generation's hockey sensibilities. It also whiffed on the subject of sex, an unforgivable sin, since the promise of sex is the only reason people who aren't members of the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association play sports.
The love story: Coach Chadwick's high school daughter Jessie -- who says she isn't into hockey players, but actually is, to the point that she listens to games on her Walkman during class -- is pretty, smart, sassy, and, again, in high school. She and Rob Lowe engage in precocious flirting, but never actually make out, or even hug. Despite never having made out or hugged, at one point they all of a sudden decide to have excessively passionate, unrealistically accomplished, Cinemax-style body double sex, a jarring jump from Lea Thompson & Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves straight into the deep end of Shannon Tweed & Some Guy in Indecent Behavior III
Keep in mind that Rob Lowe awkwardly lost his virginity 30 minutes previously, to Miss McGill, the boarding house mother, a matronly prospect seducer similar to Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, except she offers no helpful advice, and isn't hot. How difficult is it to make a 1980s sports movie that both stokes your will to win and gives you an uncontrollable erection inspired by someone who doesn't look like Mary Steenburgen's less attractive older sister? Apparently pretty difficult.
More glaring is Youngblood's appallingly clumsy handling of locker room homoeroticism. At least 100% of '80s movies featured gay subtext, and it almost always enhanced the movie in question. For straight people, it helped lay the groundwork for future acceptance (how can you condemn behavior you once enjoyed watching while shoving Whoppers in your mouth?), while for gay people, it was just text. Top Gun had a shirtless volleyball scene soundtracked by Kenny Loggins' "Playing with the Boys" and a shower scene where Cruise and Val Kilmer mentally hate-banged. The Porky's trilogy had a prostitute penis-inspection scene involving many naked dudes, and a jiu jitsu fight you'd interpret as very sexual if you were trying to impress a 45-year-old NYU professor. No matter your sexual orientation, after seeing these movies, you still wanted to be a naval aviator, and you still wished you'd attended Angel Beach High School in 1954 -- an innocent time when the only thing terrifying about sex was Kim Cattrall
Now, take this locker-room scene from Youngblood: the veterans corner Rob Lowe, strip him, strap him to a training table, and lather his junk with shaving cream, then watch as Swayze straight-razors his wang area while wearing a jock-strap like a surgical mask and inexplicably talking in both a bad Russian accent and a bad Chinese accent. No matter your sexual orientation, the only thought in your head is "What just happened? I feel four kinds of violated, and if we ever get a hockey team I definitely won't be signing up.
Youngblood's timing was a little off -- six years after the Miracle on Ice -- but still, the movie should have focused the testosterone of millions of American boys on getting good at hockey, then getting laid because they were good at hockey. The fact that it failed to do so forced the NHL to send Gretzky to Los Angeles or risk losing the American market forever. But hey, it's free on YouTube, so cover your balls and give it a watch.