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GREAT SKATES

The team stud is on the front stoop, tearfully explaining himself to the town mayor, whose wife he has been trysting with for some time (along with every other bored young female resident of tiny Mystery, Alaska).

"I play hockey and fornicate," he blubbers in shame, "because they're the two most fun things you can do in cold weather."

"Play hockey" doesn't quite describe what they do in this snowbound mini-burg.

They call it "the Saturday game." It's the high point of community life in Mystery. Those who play hockey well enough to make the team are local heroes -- for life. Those who don't make the team are presumed to carry around the resultant bitterness -- for life.

Because everything in town has been focused on "the Saturday game" for generations, the current team is a little miracle, a whirlwind of lightning skaters and rocket shooters that is, according to an article in Sports Illustrated, the equal of an NHL franchise. The hitch is that the article was written by one of the town's precious few expatriates, a fellow who went to New York to become a weaselly, triple-dealing sports coordinator for a major network.

His motives were not pure. Everything, then, that was a "fun thing to do in cold weather" is about to turn into a conflict.

There are two major studio movies opening Friday in area theaters. One, David O. Russell's "Three Kings," is a wildly different war movie hauling a mile-long freight train full of critical praise wherever it goes. The other, the largely unheralded "Mystery, Alaska," is the conventional sports myth that American movies have been hawking since "Rocky" more than two decades ago. Not only that, it's from Disney, the conglomerate that has big money in hockey. Think of "Mystery, Alaska" as "The Mighty Ducks" for grown-ups.

And now a little news: The supposedly "unconventional" film is a riveting but unsatisfying and maddening mess. The supposed two-hour cliche is a warm, heartfelt tribute to the place of sports in a small town. Buffalo is a city with a couple centuries of pivotal history, not an overgrown settlement like Mystery. But in a city that just had a virulent case of Stanley Cup fever -- a city that turned a skate in a goal crease into a community scandal -- the world of "Mystery, Alaska" will be more than a little familiar. (There's even an expert parody of hockey blunderbuss Don Cherry by Canadian Mike Myers.)

A little more news: It was co-written by David E. Kelley, who now joins '70s and '80s TV writer Stephen Cannell, literary cousins Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike and best-selling kingpin Stephen King among the champion producers of verbiage in our time.

It probably shouldn't surprise anyone that a professional writer can accrete enough daily production to look like an avalanche -- especially if there's a lot of inner variation in it to keep a talent agile. Still, Kelley has become something of a marvel in Hollywood.

Anyone who assumes that his output guarantees formula mediocrity for "Mystery, Alaska" hasn't seen the film. Imagine the best episode of Kelley's series "Picket Fences." Multiply by 10 and you have "Mystery, Alaska."

It has a real feel for both pond hockey and small-town life that sneaks up on you and seems genuine -- especially when that small-town life is invaded by that requisite villain of the modern age, big-town media.

When the town team for "the Saturday game" is exposed nationally for the prodigy that it is, the town's expatriate demon compounds it by arranging an exhibition game with -- of course -- the New York Rangers.

The results aren't quite as rote as you think. Little Richard, for one thing, sings the national anthem. Yes, Little Richard.

True, both the team and the town are full of types: the veteran team player with more dedication than talent (Russell Crowe), his long-suffering wife (Mary McCormick), the hot-to-trot bored wife of the mayor (Lolita Davidovich), the randy team stud (Ron Eldard) she snags for a nooner or two. But Burt Reynolds plays the team coach, the requisite town wise man.

Inside the types are quirksome, even powerful human variations. Crowe is a genuinely frustrated and baffled man, the day job of the team's randy stud is teacher at the local school, and the long-suffering wife and mother has one speech that may find echoes in a lot of small-town female hearts. "I thank God I had a boy," she blurts out one night to her husband. "This is not an easy town for a woman. I didn't choose this town. I chose you."

And Reynolds isn't just a man of discipline and inhibition, he's a man of so much mysterious melancholy that he's downright creepy. (At this stage of Reynolds' career, his self-obsession gives every serious role he takes weird overtones.)

At heart, "Mystery, Alaska" (surely the worst title since "The Shawshank Redemption") is old-fashioned -- so much so that beneath its formula it insists on an accurate feel for some real things and a real heart beneath it all.

It won't win any national box office face-offs, but in its genuine faith in the extraordinary that's always implicit in the ordinary, it's nothing if not lovable.

See for yourself.

REVIEW Mystery, Alaska Rating: **** Burt Reynolds, Russell Crows, Lotlita Davidovich, Ron Eldard and Mary McCormack in a tale of an Alaskan pond hockey team and its big match with the New York Rangers. Co-written by David E. Kelley, directed by Jay Roach. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.

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