Saturday, April 2, 2016

#2,056. Slap Shot (1977)

Directed By: George Roy Hill

Starring: Paul Newman, Michael Ontkean, Strother Martin

Tag line: "If this movie doesn't make you laugh, you better look up a psychiatric!!"

Trivia: Writer Nancy Dowd originally intended the film to be a documentary. George Roy Hill convinced her that it would be better served as a feature length-comedy

Definitely on the shortlist of the best sports movies ever made, and most likely the greatest hockey film of all-time, 1977’s Slap Shot is a hilarious look at sports, violence, and the ordinary fan’s obsession with them both.

Try as he might, player / coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), top man for the Charlestown Chiefs, can’t turn things around for his last-place hockey team. To make matters worse, the local factory, which employs practically all of Charlestown, has announced it’s shutting its doors for good on April 1st. With most of their fan base suddenly unemployed, it looks as if the Chiefs are headed for the scrap heap. But Reggie isn't the type to give up easily, so, hoping to light a fire under his players, he starts a rumor that the Chiefs are about to be purchased by a group that intends to move the entire team to Florida. And with the addition of three new players, brothers Jeff (Jeff Carlson), Steve (Steve Carlson), and Jack Hanson (David Hanson), who led their previous league in penalty minutes and aren’t afraid to throw their weight around, the Chiefs quickly go from being a last-place embarrassment to one of the roughest, toughest, and best teams in the league.

Even off the ice, Reggie has his hands full. When not pressuring Chiefs President Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) to reveal the name of the team’s elusive owner, he’s busy trying to win back his soon-to-be ex Francine (Jennifer Warren) while also putting the movies on Lily (Lindsay Crouse), the unhappy wife of the team’s top scorer, Ned Bradon (Michael Ontkean). Still, despite all the turmoil, the #1 love of Reggie Dunlop’s life is hockey, and thanks in part to their new “take-no-prisoners” attitude, the Chiefs find themselves the favorites to win the upcoming championship. But will their sudden burst of violent energy, which has won them thousands of new fans in Charlestown, save the Chiefs from fading into obscurity?

Paul Newman has always been one of my favorite actors, and he’s predictably great as the conniving Reggie, who is an expert at manipulating his players; he even manages to turn Dave Carlson (Jerry Houser), the nicest guy on the team, into a hockey goon (before long, Dave adopts the nickname “killer”). As for the supporting cast, Strother Martin makes for a slimy front-office exec whose every move is designed to cover his own ass; and Michael Ontkean’s Ned, the most complex character in the entire film, is a well-educated college boy who could get a good-paying job anywhere, yet chooses to play hockey for a third-rate team (much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife Lily, who, like many other wives, has turned to the bottle for comfort).

That said, the most memorable characters in Slap Shot are, without a doubt, the bespectacled Hanson Brothers, all of whom were portrayed not by actors, but actual hockey players (at the time, the three were teammates on the Johnstown Jets, of the North American Hockey League). When Reggie first meets the brothers, they’re beating the hell out of a vending machine that "stole their quarter", and after checking them into their hotel, he discovers they brought an entire suitcase filled with toys! Yet while they are undeniably slow-witted off the ice, the Hansons know exactly what they’re doing when they lace up. In what is the film’s funniest scene, the brothers, in their very first shift, pummel the opposing team, trip an official, and hit the organ player in the head with a puck. Yet as aggressive as they are in that game, it’s nothing compared to the chaos they unleash over the ensuing weeks. Even with a star like Paul Newman on-hand, the Hansons somehow managed to steal the show.

While shining a light on our fascination with violence (the Chiefs’ fan base grows exponentially once the fists start flying), Slap Shot is also a funny, obscenity-fueled look at what goes on in the locker room or on the team bus, when players are kicking back and relaxing. Writer Nancy Dowd based the script for Slap Shot on stories told to her by her brother Ned, who, like the trio portraying the Hansons, was a member of the Johnstown Jets (Ned appears briefly in the movie as the league’s most notorious goon, Ogie Ogilthrope). Some took issue with the film’s steady stream of profanity (saying she found Slap Shot amusing, critic Joy Gould Boynum of The Wall Street Journal also felt it was “foul-mouthed and unabashedly vulgar”), but in my opinion, the dialogue, though racy at times, always feels 100% genuine, as if we’re eavesdropping behind-the-scenes on an actual sports team. 

That said, the foul language did have an adverse effect on star Paul Newman. In the excellent biography Paul Newman: A Life, author Shawn Levy recounts that, though the actor considered Slap Shot one of his favorites of all the movies he made, he had a hard time shaking the profanity after filming had wrapped. “I knew I had a problem”, Newman said, “when I turned to my daughter one day and said ‘Please pass the fucking salt’.”

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