Maybe the world hasn’t been waiting with bated breath for a Canadian hockey-flavored version of “Grosse Point Blank.” But that was fun, flippant and romantic and the violence wasn’t as in-your-face as you might expect for a hit-man high school reunion comedy. So why not?
“First Round Down” shows us the possibilities in the idea, even if it hammers home the point that we’re still waiting on a good action comedy along those lines.
It’s a glib, slow and somewhat sour variation on a theme, a comedy that’s never as jaunty as that ancient Canadian ditty that plays out under the opening credits, “The Good ol’Hockey Game” by “Stompin’ Tom Connors.
The reunion this time is of a famous Hamilton, Ontario Junior team, the Steelhawks, who conjured up “the preeminent sporting event in Hamilton history” when they won The Sterling Cup. The story maintains that was ten years ago, but everybody in this thing looks as if more than ten years have passed, the vintage music and vintage cars treasured by those who lived through it are even older still.
Tom Tucker, played by Dylan Bruce of “American Gothic” and “Orphan Black,” was “the most touted junior hockey player in years” back when he wore the black and gold. But he was laid out and injured during a game, ending his career.
He’s back in town, delivering pizzas, getting the odd double take of “Didn’t you used to be” even as he isn’t landing tips. Tom looks after baby brother Matty — “It’s MATTHEW!” (Percy Hynes White) — and saves his pennies.
Tom can take up with his old drinking buddy Bobby (Rob Ramsay, funny) and get a pass from a cop (Boomer Phillips) who tries and fails to arrest him for public urination after a night of drinking.
“Bill? I thought you were just some dumb cop.”
“I AM a dumb cop. Look how fast you stole my gun!”
But the homecoming doesn’t really hit home until he delivers a pizza to his ex, Kelly (Rachel Wilson of “Republic of Doyle”).
“It’s been ten years, Tucker. Get over me.”
Maybe he has and maybe he hasn’t. And what’s he been up to during the decade he was away? Feed him a beer or two and you’ll get it out of him.
Tom, it turns out, is a careless, loose-lipped, jokey and hotheaded hit man.
“Coupla bourbons for me and the ‘Goodfella’ over here!”
The casual viewer can guess the one or two directions “First Round Down” is going just from that one character trait. But let’s play out the string, because “Hammertown” (Hamilton’s nickname) deserves no less.
The stuff that works is Tom’s general haplessness and near-embarrassment at doing this job, back in this town, remembered by these people.
His alcohol problems have him slapping pucks, at game speed, at his goalie little brother in their garage, and bellowing at kids in a game he where he and Bobby are imbibing.
Fat loser Bobby yelling, “You are a drunken f—–g mistake” at a kid hockey player on the ice? Funny.
There’s beer drunk stalking and that whole public urination incident as well, all lightly amusing aspects of his character flaw.
His anger management issues have him giving a kid a hard time for not tipping because he’s just “a front for your parents” penny-pinching ways. And then there’s the room full of tough guys who not only stiff him over his tip, but insult him and won’t even pay full price for their pie.
The best scene co-directors Brett and Jason Butler cook up and shoot is essentially a savage hockey fight, on dry land with Tom taking on three toughs, glimpsed through a half-open motel room door.
The characters and story’s actual age and proper setting are given away in a bit of casting. John Kapelos makes a memorable mark as a mob boss who has used Tom’s handiwork over the years. Kapelos is best remembered as the world-weary, cynical janitor in “The Breakfast Club.”
That was a LOT longer than ten years ago, campers.
“First Round Down” stumbles and drags long before the “First Period” (hockey-game chapters separating the segments of the story) has ended. The film, now on Amazon and other video streaming platforms, never settles into the tone that works — jokey, slapshticky.
Sentiment interrupts, with sappy solo guitar underscoring those moments. The violence is necessary to the plot, but in the quite-violent finale, it sours the picture. The whole affair would have worked better if Tom had just turned his hockey enforcer skills to mob collector work. Fists and beatings lower the stakes, but are funnier that “Two Gun Tom” hitman work.
That brawler-paid to-brawl idea better fits the story and would have made the “Grosse Pointe” ripoff less obvious.
And the film’s Canadian content might have scored more laughs, north and south of the border, had the Butlers played around with that more. I lived on the edge of Canada in North Dakota and Alaska, and the differences between the cultures are both telling and occasionally hilarious, and generations of Canadian writers, comics and actors have made their fortune finding what’s funny “up there” and selling it both at home and in the U.S.
What the filmmakers here have made instead is a movie with some moments, built on a framework that’s worked before and will work again. You just wish they’d workshopped more jokes into this script and taken their story in more amusing directions.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence and profanity
Cast: Dylan Bruce, Rachel Wilson, Rob Ramsay, Peter MacNeil, Pedro Miguel Arce and Joel Thomas Hynes.
Credits: Written and directed by Brett M. Butler, Jason G. Butler. An Unobstructed View release.
Running time: 1:36