Like a disputed goal, hockey movies need to be reviewed. More accurate than the War Room in Toronto, more exciting than a referee’s microphone malfunction, it’s PITB’s Under Review. Next up: Breakaway, currently in theatres.

Ruling on the ice: No goal. There is a good movie that can be made out of this concept and Breakaway has a few moments where it is that movie. Ultimately, however, it is far too predictable and has too many flaws to recommend without reservation.

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When my wife and I got to the theatre to watch Breakaway on opening night, we were surprised to see that the theatre was packed. We were not surprised, however, to see that we were almost the only white people in the crowd. This movie is definitely targeted at the Indo-Canadian audience and opened in India under the name Speedy Singhs.

It’s also a sports movie about hockey, which should translate well to a larger audience. Unfortunately, it largely relies on too-common sports movie tropes and cliches that are not enlivened enough by the overarching themes of clashing cultures.

Rajdeep Singh (Vinay Virmani in his first role) is the rebellious son of two very traditional Sikh parents. He has dropped out of college, cut his hair, and takes naps while working for his uncle. The one thing Raj loves is hockey, playing pickup games with his Sikh friends and dreaming of one day playing in the NHL. His father (Anupam Kher) forbids him from playing, demanding that he focus on his job and his future. Instead, he goes behind his father’s back to organize an all-Sikh hockey team, The Speedy Singhs, to compete in the local prestigious hockey tournament.

The most obvious comparison to be made is with Bend It Like Beckham, another film involving an immigrant Indian family struggling with a child rebelling against traditional culture and expectations by playing a sport popular in their new home. The father in both movies is even played by the same actor. While Bend It Like Beckham dealt with gender issues, however, Breakaway focuses on religion.

A major part of Sikh tradition and religion is the wearing of a turban. While the main character, Raj, has cut his hair and discarded his turban, his friends and therefore the rest of the Speedy Singhs, have not. They refuse to remove their turbans, even while playing, meaning no helmets. This raises a slight safety issue that threatens to keep them out of the championship game.

This is certainly a legitimate issue. There is an ongoing issue involving motorcycle helmet laws and Sikh tradition: there are exemptions in place in some countries and in British Columbia and Manitoba in Canada for Sikhs to ride motorcycles without helmets. For hockey, a Surrey coach was temporarily banned from coaching for refusing to remove his turban and wear a helmet during practices after a rule change. Eventually, the decision was overturned and he was simply required to sign a waiver, but it goes to show that this is a living issue in Canada.

Their solution is to adapt a traditional style of “iron turban” used by Sikh warriors. It’s a novel solution, but one that strains credibility, particularly when you see they keep the chainmail aventail.

Yeah, I don't see any safety issues with that...

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that the helmets are approved – partly thanks to some handy lawyering by love interest Melissa Winters (Camilla Belle) – and the Speedy Singhs go on to win the championship. It’s that kind of sports movie: the underdog wins, the guy gets the girl, and everyone goes home with warm hearts.

There are countless sports movies that follow the same beats, but it’s the execution that is lacking. Like food at a fondue party, it’s dipped in a large amount of cheese. Even that can be excused with good acting, but the male and female leads, Vinay Virmani and Camilla Belle, have no chemistry and seem to specialize in awkward line reads.

The other performances are absolutely fine, including Russell Peters, who was perfectly cast as an obnoxious new addition to Raj’s family as he is engaged to his cousin (Noureen DeWulf). Anupam Kher is fantastic as the stern father who sees his son’s future falling apart and Rob Lowe is solid as Dean Youngblood Dan Winters, the failed hockey star turned arena janitor turned coach. But your movie is in trouble if your two leads are the worst actors in your cast.

The movie suffers from staying on the surface when it should delve deep. Its best moments get to the heart of its themes: a quiet conversation between Raj and his younger brother is the film’s strongest moment, but too many opportunities are missed to connect the rest of the plot to these themes. Instead, it’s content to go through the motions, going step-by-step through the sports movie checklist.

If you have a stomach for cliches and don’t mind predictability, there is still a lot of humour found in Breakaway as well as some decent on-ice action. Otherwise, avoid.

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Upon Further Review: Yeah, still no goal. Too often Breakaway feels like a sports movie paint-by-numbers filled in by a child who isn’t particularly good at colouring. While enjoyable at times, it can be painful at others, and doesn’t engage its themes with enough depth to transcend its difficulties.

Best Hockey Play: My favourite play was a simple one: a perfect saucer-pass over the defender’s stick on a 2-on-1. It was Sedinesque.

Most Ludicrous On-Ice Moment: Those helmets. I just can’t take the chainmail seriously. Way too much chance for injury.

Player I Would Draft: Rajdeep Singh is almost as good as he thinks he is. And he thinks he’s the brown Gretzky. So yeah, I would draft Raj. He combines strong skating with slick hands and excellent on-ice vision. Organizing and captaining his own team shows his leadership ability as well. His line delivery may be flat, but you can say the same for Crosby.

Final Word: Those more familiar with Sikh and Indian culture will likely find a lot to enjoy, with a few inside jokes and some fun cameos. Some of the inside jokes require that you understand Punjabi. The two biggest laughs in the theatre came on Punjabi lines that were not subtitled like the rest of the film.

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5 comments

  1. Irene Tanga
    October 1, 2011

    I think I’m going to see all the movies you’ve reviewed, you make even the bad ones seem entertaining.
    Also, isn’t his name Rajveer?

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    • Daniel Wagner
      October 2, 2011

      Might be Rajveer. IMDB says Rajdeep, but the character is apparently known as Rajvinder on the release in India. They referred to him as “Raj” for most of the movie, so I honestly can’t remember.

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  2. joe
    October 1, 2011

    totally off topic, but can u guys tweet mike gillis and ask if he reads malcolm gladwell? he seems heavily influenced

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  3. Raj
    October 1, 2011

    I just came back from watching it, and i thought that while very much a sterotypical sports movie, it was funny. But that may be because I am punjabi, and caught the inside jokes, and laughed my head off.

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    • Daniel Wagner
      October 2, 2011

      It was definitely funny at times. I laughed way too hard at “Mahatma Gretzky”, that’s for sure. I just felt like there was far more that could have been done with the movie. I was disappointed that there was never any interaction between Melissa and Raj’s father after all the fuss about Raj playing “the white man’s sport” and “dating a white girl.” It was missed opportunities like that that made it a flawed movie.

      It has a lot of good moments and a strong premise, but poor acting and surface-level storytelling kept it from being something more.

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