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Entries in Slap Shot [1977] (1)


Slap Shot (1977)

Foil for the Common Sports Movie

And to think, I hesitated.

--Dr. Channard, Hellbound: Hellraiser II

For years, people tried to get me to watch Slap Shot. But even though George Roy Hill's bloody, profane hockey comedy is widely regarded as one of the greatest sports movies of all time, I had as much interest in it as I do in actual sports--which is to say, none. But Slap Shot is unlike any such film I've seen: smart, stylish, hilarious, and unpredictable (not to mention unrelentingly bleak in some parts), it instantly rocketed into my "Top 25" list and kind of made me care about the game.

From the opening minutes, I knew I was in for something different: instead of kicking things off with a big game, Hill and screenwriter Nancy Dowd present their film's thesis by introducing newscaster Jim Carr (Andrew Duncan) and Charlestown Chiefs goalie Denis Lemieux (Yvon Barrette). During a commercial break, Carr fidgets nervously with a microphone while his guest stares blankly, as if waiting to be activated. Lemieux springs to something resembling life when asked about illegal hockey moves, and goes on to illustrate the outlawed behavior fans won't see at his losing team's next match. It's a puff piece, centered on players no one cares about, but Carr's determination to drum up audience interest leads him right to the topic of violence.

Enter Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), the Chiefs' irrascible, alcoholic, almost-divorced coach, whose devotion to "old-time hockey" has led his team straight to the bottom of the Federal League. His boss, Joe McGrath (Strother Martin), wants desperately to sell the team, but can't find any takers. In a last-ditch effort to boost interest, he hires the Hanson brothers (Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson, and Dave Hanson) to liven things up a bit. Young, dumb, brutal goons, the Hansons savagely beat up their opponents and even go after fans in the stands.

Their tactics horrify the Chiefs, but when word of mouth spreads as quickly as winning games, other players begin to adopt a killer attitude (including Jerry Houser's Eastern philosophy-loving Dave Carlson, who insists people actually call him "Killer"). Just as things pick up steam, rumors surface that the local steel mill is set to close--which would leave thousands of townsfolk with little disposable income for things like hockey games. Dunlop concocts a rumor of his own to boost morale: a big-time Florida team is interested in The Chiefs, he claims, and the boys can seal the deal with a championship win.

At this point in most sports movies, one can track the story's trajectory with unfailing accuracy: the team finds out about the scam and quits; the coach does some soul-searching and seeks out the players individually to apologize; the gang gets back together just in time to play The Big Game and--surprise, surprise--take home the trophy. Dowd certainly takes us down that path, but switches several times on a dime, to great comedic effect. She understands that each of The Chiefs is, on some level, the product of a lifetime of dysfunction, and that one apology or one game won't automatically redefine them.

In addition to the offbeat story, Slap Shot's real selling point is its amazing cast, headlined by Newman. He gets down and dirty as Dunlop--the prototypical "lovable asshole" who is equal parts charming everyman and cringe-worthy scumbag. It's the kind of role Billy Bob Thornton might have played ten years ago (Slap Shot reminded me a great deal of Bad Santa, crossed with Porky's, and set in the world of sports). But the key to making the character work is the gravitas Newman brings with his lifetime of classy, classic roles. There's something so deliciously wrong about those famously intelligent, soulful blue eyes crinkling in disgust as he accuses a rich lady's young son of being a "faggot". How many actors could get away with that, and still make us root for them in the end?

Yes, Slap Shot is quite shockingly nasty for those of us accustomed to the sterile bubble of modern mainstream fare. The language, violence, nudity (you'll never look at Ralphie's mom the same way again), and generally beer-soaked, cigarette-butt atmosphere created by Hill and company make the movie feel lived-in and real. This isn't Hollywood's glossy idea of scrappy underdogs; this is what a team of mutants looks like in its off hours--probably because Dowd based her screenplay on the real-life adventures of Hanson, the Carlsons, and her brother, Ned Dowd, who plays The Chiefs' chief rival in the film.

My biggest surprise was how much time the filmmakers devoted to the main characters' relationships off the ice. The Chiefs' star player, Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) is having marital troubles of his own, and Dunlop ends up taking his beleaguered wife, Lily (Lindsay Crouse), under his own bruised wing. Is he just trying to show off with is estranged spouse, Francine (Jennifer Warren), or has he developed real feelings for her? And how serious is Francine about finalizing the divorce and moving to New York? The answers to these questions may surprise you, especially if you're used to Heartwarming Sports flicksTM, where strong female characters are as hard to come by as unpredictable plot twists.

I finally understand why Slap Shot is so special, and why fans have sung its praises for decades. This is a funny, exciting, and emotionally satisfying film that doesn't require audience members to check their brains at the box office. Infinitely quotable and undeniably memorable, I dare you to not be a Chiefs fan as the credits roll--and to wish they were a real-life team.