Sports movies in general have a formula they tend to follow in order to capture attention. First, they have to be about winners, otherwise most people don’t tend to give them any notice, at all. Who wants to cheer on a loser, right? Second, they have to have real conflict. Some are about the conflagration on the playing field. An overwhelming battle against a mammoth team with all the chips stacked against them. Others are about personal conflict. A small town, every man who gets to play in the “big leagues” for one glorious game. A handicapped man who finally realizes his lifelong dream of putting on the uniform for the very first time.
Or, in the case of The Rocket: The Legend Of Rocket Richard, the battle for dignity and respect against the social injustices of racism. What sets this movie far apart from the others is simple, it never uses the words racism or discrimination (except maybe on the DVD jacket)… and not just because it’s mostly in French, either.
The movie achieves the trifecta of quality movies. It combines a captivating story, brilliantly written, with exceptional acting and finishes it perfectly through flawless cinematography, editing and a moving musical score. What may be the biggest surprise of all is how carefully the movie displays the main character, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard (Roy Dupuis), not only as a quiet, working man but someone for whom the pressures of the daily discrimination that he and his fellow French Canadian teammates face every day pushes him past the breaking point.
The movie opens with a chaotic sequence surrounding the controversy caused by a fight in a game in Chicago in 1955 that caused Richard to be suspended and sparked a race riot in Montreal. The scene dissolves into Richard’s humble beginnings during the depression years of the thirties where, at the age of seventeen (played by François Langlois-Vallières), working during the day in a factory as a machinist and playing hockey in the junior leagues in the evening. We are also introduced to a very young Lucille Norchet (Amélie Richer) who will later become Mrs. Richard (Julie LeBreton).
Richard is shown, several years later, speaking to Lucille’s father and asking for permission to marry her. Her father grills Maurice about why he should allow his daughter to marry a lowly machinist. All the while Lucille talks about how Richard is going to try out for the Montreal Canadiens or “Habs” as the locals call them. Lucille’s father is not convinced and forbids them to marry. Of course, the very next scene is the happy couple surrounded by their family taking a portrait on their wedding day.
The story follows a fairly predictable arc over the next forty-five minutes. Maurice barely makes it onto the team, even though Coach Irvin (Stephen McHattie) recognizes someone who wants to win as badly as he does, because he’s inexperienced and has previous injuries. He and Lucille have their first child. Richard shows himself to be a powerful player. He earns an early nickname of “The Comet” just before breaking his ankle showing the world that his body may be as fragile as his young career. Richard faces each challenging setback with quiet dignity. The movie really doesn’t show it’s hand until several years into Maurice’s successful career with the Canadiens. The ride, though predictable up to that point, is anything but boring.
The turning point for the entire story comes several years into Maurice’s career when the pressures of discrimination become too much for him. Suddenly it is apparent that Richard’s biggest opponents aren’t on the ice but in the governing bodies of the very league he’s been playing for. The quiet machinist from Quebec finds his voice.
It seems almost trite to say but The Rocket: The Legend Of Rocket Richard follows the sports movie formula just enough to qualify itself as a sports movie. It is, thankfully, much, much more. It is an exceptional taste of dignity. The characters become so real and the story so comfortable that when the true conflict begins the viewer feels every painful episode. The final victory in this movie ends up feeling very, very personal. Writer Ken Scott and directer Charles Binamé are both to be congratulated for visionary story-telling and for creating a historical masterpiece.
Charles Binamé (director) / Ken Scott (screenplay)
CAST: Roy DuPuis, Stephen McHattie, Remy Girard, Philip Craig, Patrice Robitaille