A modicum of old-time talent and a lot of thoroughly tasteless bathroom humor went into George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977); an adolescent, navel-gazing amusement that cast Paul Newman as wily has-been, Reggie Dunlop whose ‘pro’ hockey career is presently circling the bowl. Nancy Dowd’s loose-tongued screenplay, dashing every four letter word to pieces ad nauseam, is loosely based on her brother, Ned’s experiences as a minor league defenseman. In fact, Slap Shot not only utilizes Johnstown, Pennsylvania – Ned’s old stomping grounds - as its central location, but it also hired several of Dowd’s teammates from the Johnstown Jets to fatten up the Chiefs’ roster. Incidentally, Ned also appears in the movie as the much-feared super goon, Ogie Ogilthorpe. Verisimilitude can work wonders on a B-grade comedy; ‘truth through laughter’ being the most prominent and ‘endearing’ feature of Slap Shot. At some point the viewer simply has to throw up his/her arms to accept the prevalent ‘Don’t give a sh_t. Never did. Never will.’ attitude and thereby appreciate all the ‘C’ and ‘D’-grade lunacy that follows.
Generally, I’m not a fan of smut cinema; my rule of thumb being that if you have to rely on excessive verbalized filth, violence, and, gratuitous sex to pad out your run time then you really don’t have much of a movie to begin with. Yet, for all its vulgarity and seemingly pointless debauching, Slap Shot never quite veers into rank stupidity, if for no other reason, because it’s just too embarrassing to consider Paul Newman committing himself to anything less than ‘good’. And Slap Shot does get the genuine laugh. That’s impressive, especially since its’ unabashedly perverse, in-your-face/kick-in-the-crotch story-telling never quite allows the audience to forget high art is decidedly not the order of the day. In spite of itself, Slap Shot entertains; its underdog scenario rising to the top (either as cream or vermin might) and kept afloat by its Cinder-fella story line: good things happening to people – even those who may not deserve it. Wish fulfillment is a perennial favorite theme in American movies; the sucker punch for we suckers who still believe in, or at least desperately crave, magic in our lives.
Slap Shot is a grossly unapologetic, fairly episodic affair – Dowd’s snippets of light drama, mere shoestrings used to loosely stitch the film’s ultra-violent/potty-mouthed ‘T’ and ‘A’ slap stick (pun intended). It’s no secret that violence was a selling feature in hockey back in the seventies, comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s classic quip that he “went to a fight and a hockey game broke out” summarizing the general spirit of Slap Shot. Curiously, this never occurs to our fictional ‘hero’ Reggie Dunlop until he learns that his team, the Charleston Chiefs, is being liquidated at the end of the season. With his newly ensconced ‘what the hell?’ attitude, Reggie decides to transform his burnt out teammates into the roughest crew of hockey goons this side of Boston; a decision that ironically invigorates their game, breaks the team’s uninterrupted losing streak and ultimately draws their dwindling fan base back into the arena.
Although Slap Shot is presumably set during Fall and Winter, months when the sport is in season, it was actually shot in July; Newman and his co-stars wearing heavy winter coats in the sweltering heat with full blooming trees and flowers clearly visible in the background. Again, I suspect that like tact, continuity was never a concern for the film makers. And George Roy Hill must have known he had another winner on his hands with Newman as his star; Newman, of course, being Hill’s good luck charm ever since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). In fact, Newman would regard Slap Shot as his favorite movie; the ‘on set’ camaraderie fostering friendships lasting for many years. In viewing Slap Shot today one definitely senses this chest-thumping joie de vivre emanating from the peripheries of every frame. The cast revels in their saucy exchanges; ‘cut loose’ testosterone-driven, male-bonding nonsense, anteing up the level of silliness with tongue firmly in cheek. This ‘balls in’ audacity is Slap Shot’s raison d'être, and, I suspect, the sole reason it lingers in our collective consciousness as a dirty little ‘fond’ memory.
Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is a physically beleaguered/emotionally stunted, over-the-hill player/coach. The Charlestown Chiefs are a nearly forgotten dog of a minor pro hockey team whose roster is undeniably at the bottom of the proverbial barrel. These guys couldn’t win a game if their lives depended on it and Joe McGrath (Strother Martin), their portly manager, knows it. Resorting to cut-rate and embarrassing promotional tie-ins to keep the Chief’s bottom line from mercilessly sinking into the red has left the team further defeated; their morale about as low as it can get. Reggie is neither particularly gifted nor motivational. But he is a rather slick con artist. And yet, he is entirely unable to keep even his own house in order; figuratively and literally, his marriage to local hairstylist, Francine (Jennifer Warren) about to implode. Meanwhile, Joe buys up the contracts of Jeff (Jeff Carlson), Steve (Steve Carlson) and Jack (David Hanson) Hanson; a trio of social misfits who cumulatively possess the intellectual power of a dead flashlight battery. Insulted by their acquisition, Reggie chooses to bench the Hansons. They’re not hockey players. They’re outcasts or, as Reggie unflatteringly labels them, ‘retards’.
In the meantime, Reggie learns the local steel mill is about to close. No mill – no patrons…not that there were many still going to the Chief’s home games anyway. But Reggie’s suspicions are confirmed when fellow player and top scorer, Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) overhears Joe on the phone desperately marketing himself for a job with another team. Ned doesn’t care for Reggie. In fact, he regards him as little more than a relic who ought to have hung up his skates some time ago. The two clash on just about every point on how a good hockey team ought to be managed. Reggie repeatedly makes a play for Ned’s young wife, Lily (Lindsay Crouse) who, frankly, has had it with Ned, the team and their dead-end existence in this know-nothing town. Joe confides in Reggie that the team will fold at the end of the season. With nothing to lose, Reggie decides to forgo fair play and sportsmanship and give the fans what they truly want – a good, ole-fashioned knock down/drag out brawl. He lets the Hansons play, quickly realizing that their thirst for blood on the ice is the perfect complement to his accidentally stumbled upon master plan.
The Hanson’s goon squad mentality rubs off on the rest of the team – everyone except Ned – and the Chiefs quickly establish themselves as the bruisers of the American Minor Hockey League. Reggie now plants a false story with eccentric sports writer, Dickie Dunn (M. Emmet Walsh) that a prominent Florida retirement community is planning to buy the Chiefs. This generates some healthy spin and good buzz to elevate the team’s morale. With their new found mantra of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em – kill ‘em’, the Chiefs embark on a winning streak unlike anything experienced in recent years. Their booster club and fans adore them for it. But being the ‘bad boys’ of hockey also incurs the ire of rival coaches, referees and teams; particularly the Syracuse Bulldogs whose mercenary captain, Tim ‘Doctor Hook’ McCracken (Paul D’Amato) vows to wipe out the Chiefs after an especially humiliating defeat.
Reggie realizes that time is of the essence. His gag can only go so far unless he learns the identity of the team’s owners and can persuade them to actually sell off their interests to a ‘legitimate’ Florida buyer. But Joe isn’t about to divulge this information to Reggie; at least, not until Reggie threatens to expose Joe’s past homosexual propositioning of him in the tabloids. Reggie is surprised to learn that a wealthy widow, Anita McCambridge (Kathryn Walker) is the Chiefs’ sole owner and silent partner. But Reggie is equally stunned, and frankly insulted, when Anita openly admits to him that, although his thug tactics have resurrected the Chiefs’ potential for a viable sale, her accountant has advised to fold them instead as a tax write-off. Realizing that the championship game will be their last, Reggie spills the beans to his teammates and further instructs them to go out by playing some good, clean ‘old-time hockey’ against the Bulldogs. It’s a disaster. Without coordination or even a game plan, the Bulldogs mop the ice with the Chiefs. Joe, who has brought scouts in to witness a victory, descends upon the Chiefs’ locker room at halftime to admonish them for their disgusting defeat. As a result, Reggie instructs the team to revert back to their ‘kick-ass’ ways and, when the Chiefs return to the ice, an all-out affray ensues.
Ned, who still refuses to partake in the team’s brutish antics, is suddenly inspired to change his mind when he catches a glimpse of his Tom-boyish wife, miraculously transformed into a real cheap looker by Francine’s hair and fashion tips. Ned takes to the ice, performing a striptease down to his jock, a spectacle that causes McCracken to lose it and sucker punch the referee, thereby forfeiting the game. The film ends with the Chiefs riding open car down Main Street, Reggie momentarily managing to delay Francine’s departure with the good news that he has accepted a coaching job with the Minnesota Nighthawks. Promising future or just another tall tale spun by Reggie the con? Who can say? Reggie’s not telling and neither is the movie as Francine simply smiles and pulls away from the curb; leaving the future of their marriage an open-ended question.
Slap Shot is a disreputable claptrap, one that manages to be hilarious though rarely clever. It’s one of those films you know you shouldn’t like but do. After all, the characters we get to know are not beautiful people or likeable. Let’s be honest. They’re not even normal! What they are, arguably, is fundamentally alive and genuine in all of their ultra-flawed behaviors. The movie works because it isn’t a stretch to imagine these goons and gals behaving badly. But the fact that they’re unapologetic about it doesn’t impact our level of empathy for them either and that’s refreshing. Our alignment with these characters’ interests, hopes and dreams is built into the Paul Newman persona, crafted from decades of consistently high-caliber performances elsewhere in the cinema firmament.
To see Newman so hard up, with seemingly no place to go and no one left to love him, makes us root for his loveable reprobate even more; the line between congenial star and cornball character effectively blurred. We’re really cheering for Newman, not Reggie Dunlop. But that doesn’t matter because within the context of Slap Shot they are one in the same. And since Reggie’s teammates are so naïve and willing to blindly follow him on just about any damn fool’s errand he might propose, by extension this makes us love them all the more too. It is this level of star power that sets Slap Shot up for the proverbial hat trick as a ‘mass pop-u-tainment/moneymaker’. The movie works because Newman and his cohorts high stick us with their rank idiocy. We choose to find them charming, albeit on a commercially crass level.
Screenwriter, Nancy Dowd didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Many of Slap Shot’s pivotal scenes are grounded in facts; as the moment when Jeff Hanson is struck in the face by a fan’s car keys that narrowly miss his eye, forcing Jeff and his two brothers into the stands. This actually happened to real-life player Jeff Carlson during a game between the Johnstown Jets and Mohawk Valley Comets. While one could definitely argue that there’s nothing ‘pro’ about ‘professional hockey’ as depicted herein, Slap Shot’s more violent vignettes are far more telling about the state of real sportsmanship – or lack thereof.
On the whole critics were not kind to Slap Shot when it premiered, but that didn’t stop the public from making it a smash hit at the box office. Over time these same critics have come around to reconsidering the movie’s tawdry appeal and impact. Don’t get me started – or wrong. Slap Shot isn’t a great film. At times, it isn’t even a competently made one. But it manages to capture something of the essence of a sport and a time with incredible honesty, effortlessly translated into supremely amusing satire. You’re not going to love Slap Shot because it’s great film making, but rather because it exposes the decidedly less than altruistic motivations of hockey fans who prefer to combine their love of the game with a blood feud or two on the ice. That’s a brave statement for any sports movie to make and Slap Shot has no compunction about letting us in on the gag; that there is a very fine line of distinction between fair conduct and no holds barred roughhousing.
Universal’s Blu-ray delivers a great looking 1080p transfer...sort of. Overall, colors are vibrant and contrast is very good with rich velvety blacks and clean whites. Film grain has been accurately reproduced for a very film-like visual presentation. There’s only one exception to bring up. During Ned’s penultimate striptease on the ice the image suddenly becomes softly focused; both color and contrast looking decidedly weak. Never having seen Slap Shot in theaters I am unable to comment whether or not this is how this sequence looked back in 1977. But it does seem to me that something is slightly remiss in the remastering. This sequence exhibits none of the razor-sharp image quality of the footage that bookends it. Deal breaker? In my opinion – no. But it is distracting nonetheless. We get a remarkably aggressive 2.0 DTS audio that sounds fantastic, albeit within its obvious limitations. Extras are all holdovers from Universal’s DVD and include a fairly ribald and thoroughly funny audio commentary from the Hanson brothers, a featurette ‘Puck Talk’ with the Hansons and another featuring their ‘classic’ scenes. There’s also a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Slap Shot is wickedly entertaining; a sordid slice of low brow to ‘no brow’ Americana. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)