SLAP SHOT, 1977
Directed by George Roy Hill
Starring: Paul Newman, Strother Martin, Michael Ontkean, Lindsay Crouse
Review by Megan Powers
The Charlestown Chief’s hockey team is about to be folded due to tough financial times. Player-Coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is determined to keep his team afloat even if he has to lie and scheme to make it happen.
There was no fanfare for Slap Shot during it initial release in 1977. Many critics were put off by its coarse language and locker room humor. But over the years the film has grown in stature. Slap Shot is considered one of the best sports films of the past 50 years, according to sports author Dan Jenkins. Hockey New rated Slap Shot as the Best Hockey film ever made. The critical reevaluation continues to be positive and the film has earned cult status from Entertainment Weekly in their list of the Top 50 Cult Films. In 1998 Maxim magazine named Slap Shot the “Best Guy Movie of All Time.” It’s ironic that a woman, Nancy Dowd wrote this Best Guy Movie of All Time.
Nancy Dowd based the Slap Shot story on the experiences her brother Ned Dowd had while playing minor league hockey for the Johnstown Jets in the 70’s. Violence was a huge selling point for the minor league. Ned told his sister that the team was going to be sold. She asked who owned the club and he didn’t know. Dowd moved to the area to be inspired and wrote Slap Shot. This accounts for the authenticity of the films language and situations. I love the fact that this profanity-laden outrageous comedy was written by a woman. Her characters are vivid and hilariously real. As funny as the film is, there is a very real economic dread throughout. The mill that employs most of the town is shutting down, which puts the hockey team in danger of folding.
The unknown owner of the team plans to fold the operation. This prompts the coach and fellow player Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) to plant news stories that Florida is interested in starting a hockey team. This ruse helps keep the team’s morale up and results in winning games. Florida wanting a hockey team was a great joke when this film came out. The thought was ridiculous or was until 1992 when the Tampa Bay Lightning’s hockey team debuted and went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Dunlop continues to try and find out who the teams owner is, so he can talk them out of folding the team. Meanwhile, the General Manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) adds the Hanson Brothers, three violent goons to the team. Dunlop protests and doesn’t let the brothers play. When Dunlop eventually lets the Hanson’s play, they are an instant hit with the fans. The Hanson’s are the ultimate violent goons, creating mayhem on the ice. They check players into the boards, slamming players onto the ice and even slapping the opposing players on the bench with their hockey sticks. The Chiefs gain more fans and win more games by being outrageously violent on the ice. During the warm up before the game, the Hanson’s start a brawl. Next we see the Hansons and the rest of the Chiefs bloodied and bruised listening to the National Anthem. A referee skates over to yell at Steve Hanson about not pulling any funny stuff. The Brother tell the ref, “I’m trying to listen to the f**king song.” The ref looks chagrinned. This sequence is so funny in its absurdity.
Dunlop finally blackmails McGrath into telling him who the owner is. The owner is a well off widow living in the suburbs with her children. She thanks Dunlop for making the team winners and that she could easily sell them, but she prefers to fold the team and use them as a tax write off. Dunlop pleads with her to think of the people on the team, but she won’t change her mind. He insults her before he leaves and returns to the team and tells them the truth during their final game. There is no buyer for the team. He asks the team to play old-time hockey and play the game clean. They all agree and they hear the line up for the game. The Chiefs are facing the toughest, most legendary underhanded players. They are outmatched in brutality when they play clean and they are losing the game.
During the first period, McGrath flips out, telling the team that there are NHL scouts in the audience. Next we see the Chiefs back to a slugfest on the ice. Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) is benched because he won’t fight. Braden is an excellent player without resorting to fighting. Braden skates out to center ice and does a striptease. An opposing player demands the referee to make Braden stop stripping yelling, “That’s disgusting.” The ref doesn’t and the player sucker-punches the ref. The game is forfeit to the Chiefs who win the championship. Braden skates around the rink in his jockstrap.
Slap Shot is another 70’s film that is gritty and realistic. The locations are perfect in depicting a community having financial difficulties. The situations and characters are funny because they are believable. Dowd’s dialogue is entertainingly blue and yet totally natural coming out of the characters. Somehow she’s made the coarse language seem perfectly normal in this world of sports, which I’m sure it is, but so many times in films, bad language seems to be there for no real reason. The characters use of foul language is false and is uninspired. Dowd’s characters would talk this way, so it is fitting. It has been said that f**k is said 176 times in the film. I would love to know who counted them all.
Paul Newman is excellent as the aging morally slippery Coach, who thinks he’s seen it all. Newman had said this was one of his favorite films to make. He is clearly enjoying himself and does his own skating. He is charming and a rascal. George Roy Hill directed Newman for the third time in this film. They worked together on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). The cinematography by Victor J Kemper shows us exciting action scenes on the ice. All the actors are wonderful especially the real life hockey players and non professional actors playing the Hanson Brothers: Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson and David Hanson leave an indelible mark as the id’s gone wild brothers. Yvon Barrette is great as the Chief’s put-upon goalie, Denis Lemieux. Jennifer Warren, Lindsay Crouse and Michael Ontkean all contribute to the wonderful cast.
I keep going back and watching Slap Shot over and over again and I rediscover it each time. The scenes that make me laugh out loud are too numerous to cite. I enjoy the normalcy of some of the set ups. A local hang out where the players are engrossed in a soap opera on TV, while they have a drink is amusing or when the players are watching a woman exercising on TV with rapt lascivious attention as they pass the time before a game. This film is a pitch perfect comedy and great sports movie. Discover this underrated rough gem for yourself.
There really is so much to recommend ‘Gilda’. There is a reason that it has been used (The Shawshank Redemption anyone?) over and over again, gets referred to over and over again and has a substantial fan following even now. It is a fabulous movie in so many ways. Few movies even now can boast the great plot, great characters, superb acting, and intelligent directing.
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