Friday, December 10, 2010

SLAP SHOT (1977): Old Time Hockey

Charlestown is a beaten up old town - much like Coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is a beaten up old hockey coach.*  The mill in Charlestown had laid-off over 10,000 workers and hockey was about the only pleasure left.  Early in the season, the local hockey team, the Charlestown Chiefs, was nothing special.  The team had a losing record and was in debt - so deep in debt that the manager, Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) even sold off the team’s massage table.  The Chiefs radio announcer, Jim Carr (Andrew Duncan), could only fake his enthusiasm for what was occurring on the ice – that is until the arrival of the Hanson brothers (Steve Carlson, Jeff Carlson and Dave Hanson).  With the Hanson brothers, the Chiefs began winning and drawing crowds.  The Hanson brothers’ talent was to play dirty.  In opposing arenas, before the puck is even dropped at center ice, the Hanson brothers bludgeon the opposing team.  But however bloodied up (and with the lenses missing from their glasses), the brothers always stand at attention when the national anthem is played.  Coach Dunlop, at first doubtful about the Hanson brothers’ hockey prowess (the Hanson brothers spend their spare time playing with toy cars in hotel rooms), eventually encourages and even partakes in their antics.
Not everyone in the Chiefs’ organization care for the new direction of the team.  Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), a bright college graduate turned professional hockey player, refuses to “goon it up.”  Dunlop, though preferring to win by playing “old fashioned” hockey, cannot argue with a winning formula and so ends up benching the talented Ned.  And the elusive owner, Anita McCambridge (Kathryn Walker), plans on disbanding the team despite the winning record.  McCambridge is a businesswoman completely oblivious to the sport of hockey (she will not allow her ten year old son to play hockey because he might get injured), and since the team no longer serves her particular tax purposes, she wants to sell it.  Dunlop meets with McCambridge and, because he cannot change her mind, insults her (by insulting her son’s masculinity).  Dunlop, now determined to play his last hockey game for the league championship cleanly, encourages his team to do the same – that is, until he learns that NHL scouts are present, in which case he goes back to the goon tactics that were so successful.
Slap Shot is bawdy, vulgar and violent.  If the purposes behind making the movie were to create an expose on hockey brutality, then the movie would have to be judged as a failure.  Far from turning moviegoers off to the violence of hockey, the very violence is one of the reasons that viewers watch this movie over and over again.  Yet I think director George Roy Hill had more in mind than this.  Though showing a disdain for what the sport had become, there still seems to be in this movie a love for the sport of hockey itself.
I’ve yet to meet a hockey fan who did not like this movie, but it takes more than a brief glimpse of the script to understand why.  Slap Shot needs to be watched.    One of the most striking visualizations in all movie history is when the three Hanson brothers first take to the ice.  There are no camera tricks, intricate choreography or special effects to impress you when you see the three mop headed brothers with square glasses skate across the ice side by side.  What you are seeing is a physical force with volition.  The Hanson brothers look, move and skate like every opponent’s nightmare.  Though the antics of the players may at first seem farfetched, there’s a high level of energy and authenticity in this movie.  The athletes play and live hard like anyone in an odd occupation who makes a living by moving from town to town.  The string of broken relationships and marriages, the troubles with the law, the admiration and animosity that they have to face all come along with being the type of people who are trying to follow their childhood hopes of becoming star athletes.  That they are only marginally successful at this is small criticism because few ever make it.  And it is the effort to bring these varied images across on the screen in Slapshot that makes the movie impressive.

Paul Newman is surprisingly well cast in what at first seems like his most atypical role.  Many viewers were not prepared to hear Coach Dunlop’s vernacular seeing that a celebrity is playing the part of Dunlop.  But Newman, playing the loser who is so obsessed with winning, has played this role before.  In good movies like Winning and The Verdict and in an extraordinary movie like The Hustler, the Newman character learns almost too late that it takes more than just talent to be a winner.  The character of a winner is reflected in every act.  Here, despite winning the league championship, Newman remains little more than a minor league coach because he is unable to win in the manner in which he desired.  He still talks and dresses shabbily, and he can find no lasting relationships that have any meaning for him.
Slap Shot remains the most hilarious movie that Newman has ever starred in.  The movie’s humor and its presentation of athletes that true sports fans will identify as being real make it one of the few sports movies that actually connects with the audience for which it was intended.  That it is not pretty or perfect or charming only speaks in the movie’s favor.
* Dunlop, because of his age and graying hair, may remind fans of Gordie Howe, who continued playing hockey until his children were old enough to join the professional ranks.
December 18, 2006
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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