By John Anderson. STAFF WRITER
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‘Mighty Ducks’ Scores a Hat Trick
* * * 1/2 (THREE AND A HALF STARS) THE MIGHTY DUCKS (PG) First-rate family film about a cutthroat lawyer sentenced to coach a cut-rate peewee hockey team. With Emilio Estevez, Joshua Jackson, Heidi Kling, Lane Smith, Shaun Weiss, Matt Doherty. Written By Steven Brill. Directed by Stephen Herek. At area theaters.
HAD ATTORNEY Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) gone into medicine rather than law, he’d not only be the answer to a TV trivia question (who was Samantha’s physician on “Bewitched”?) he’d be the kind of doctor who’d treat indigestion with open-heart surgery.
The guy is a shark, and a gleeful one: When he gets a client off on a technicality, he rubs the judge’s and prosecutor’s noses in his dirty legal maneuvers. Imagine their joy, then, when Bombay himself comes before them, after having been arrested for drinking and driving. They can’t help smiling, and you can’t help feel there’s some justice in the world.
“The Mighty Ducks,” which may do for hockey what “Batman” did for lunchboxes, is a minor miracle: a cringe-proof film that manages to promote the idea of fair play while at the same time giving us an upbeat ending.
Writer Steven Brill, whose script is pointed, witty and wise, makes Gordon a lab rat bombarded by America’s conflicted messages about winning. He’s become ruthless, a man who has to win, and who at the same time remains tortured by his greatest failure: a missed penalty shot in the biggest peewee hockey game of his life. The face of his disappointed Coach Reilly (Lane Smith) has haunted him to adulthood; when Gordon is sentenced to coach a neighborhood hockey team, he compares it to hell.
The kids on his team are a ragged, wisecracking, interracial and co-ed group that can’t shoot, can’t skate, and can’t afford the uniforms and equipment of their competition. And Gordon, a reluctant mentor at best, has trouble summoning up the energy to give them what they need most, encouragement; the words of Coach Reilly – “It’s not worth playing if you can’t win” – keep echoing in his head. When their first game turns out to be against Gordon’s old team, with Reilly at the helm, their loss is so embarrassing Gordon can’t keep himself from verbally flaying them.
When Gordon let’s his lawerly instincts get the better of him – telling his players to fake injuries – the players and their parents revolt, Gordon’s education begins, as do his relationships with Charlie (Josh Jackson) and his mother Casey (Heidi Kling). The romance isn’t intrusive; kids will only have to squeal, groan and hide their eyes over a couple of kisses. The action is limited mostly to the rink, where the Ducks – so named for Gordon’s boss, Duckworth (Josef Sommer), who winds up financing the team – become a tight playing unit, and never lose their humor.
Estevez is one of the most self-conscious actors in Hollywood, but he makes it work for him here; Gordon is, after all, a mass of contradictions. And while the psychology never gets too heavy, he also serves as a warning against the Vince Lombardi philosophy of life (winning being the only thing).
Of course, if you’ve ever had a child play Little League, or if you’ve ever played Little League, and been subjected to the infantile ravings of overzealous parents and coaches who succeed in squeezing the last ounce of fun out of a simple game, you’ll love “The Mighty Ducks.” And if you happen to be one of those parents, or coaches, do yourself a favor.
Copyright 1992, Newsday Inc.