In Canada, the name of hockey great Maurice Richard is roughly equivalent to that of Babe Ruth, which is why this 2005 film was titled Maurice Richard there and The Rocket, Richard's nickname, over here. From 1942 until he retired in 1960, having set and broken records and helping the NHL rise from two steps above dog-fighting to become a major sport perennially on the bubble below football, basketball and baseball, Richard was a hero to the French-Canadian population of Quebec—who, it's an illumination to learn, speaking from our famously xenophobic American perspective, were once ghettoized, blue-collar nobodies rather than effete urbanites who look down on croissandwiches.
Masterfully directed by Charles Binamé, who uses expressionistic blue-tint black-and-white, or factory scenes desaturated of color until only a metallic grey sheen exists, The Rocket paints Richard as an unassuming and simplistic, working-class player. Roy Dupuis, who is exceptional in the role, plays him just this side of dull-witted, and captures, without tipping into exaggeration, the mad, pinball-light eyes with which Richard famous stared down opposing players. When Dupuis' Richard stares ahead or to the side, his mind slowly working to process new information, you feel for a man for whom hockey is the one saving grace he knows and knows well. In one early scene, uncomprehending tears stream down his face as he holds his newborn first child, the weight of the world and the emotion too much for this simple man to grasp.
That wellspring of emotion helped give him the passion he used to propel on the ice, but also made him volatile. The movie shows a lot of brawling and violence to which early pro hockey was especially prone, but treats The Rocket perhaps a tad too sympathetically. For all his playing milestones, his name is intimately attached to what is called the Richard Riots, which took place in March 1955 when fans of his team, the Montréal Canadiens, violently objected to NHL president Clarence Campbell suspending Richard for the remainder of the season after Richard deliberately knocked unconscious a referee, linesman Cliff Thompson, during a brawl with the Bruins in Boston. The film depicts Thompson actively holding Richard down while opposing player Hal Laycoe gets in a couple of shots. That seems incredible, but even if that were literal truth, it's curious that the movie refuses to mention that Richard had already attacked another official earlier that same season.
That pointed omission—along with no mention whatsoever that Richard's brother Henri also played with the Canadiens, joining in 1955 and nicknamed The Pocket Rocket—gives the unmistakable feeling that this isn't a hockey movie for hockey fans. Rather, it's a mostly family-friendly, general overcoming-the-odds sports story that just happens to be gorgeously photographed. The supporting characters are mostly archetypes. There's the long-suffering, perpetually teary wife (Julie Le Breton, who looks like a young Joanna Cassidy), the hanger-on brother-in-law (Pierre-François Legendre), and the rough, tough, gruff coach (the veteran Stephen McHattie, vibrant as always). The subtitles aren't always great; at one point, they show French subtitling French, and elsewhere they refer without reference to something called "the Habs," as if we dumb Americans are supposed to be versed in 1940s French-Canadian slang.
Overriding any such quibbles is Dupuis' utterly immersed performance and the film's sheer visual beauty. Aside from director Binamé's other talents, he actually makes hockey play comprehensible, even something that might be fun to watch. Which is basically what Richard helped do, in those halcyon days.
The film won nine Genie Awards, the Canadian Oscar equivalent, including for director, cinematography, actor, actress and supporting actor.