Monday, April 1, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Slap Shot" (1977)

Paul Newman has commented that he did not swear much before making "Slap Shot," a 1977 sports comedy that was considered very raunchy for its time. Newman's character and most others drop the F-bomb liberally, and also spew epithets about gay men and women that would be considered very un-P.C. today. Supposedly Newman found much of that language creeping into his everyday speech.

A modest hit at the time, "Slap Shot" has gone on to cult film status, particularly among sports writers who regard it as one of the best sports comedies ever, and fans who call it one of the finest hockey movies of all time (which isn't saying that much since there aren't that many of them.)

For me what makes it stand out is that it's one of the few sports movies that is openly contemptuous of its sport, or at least the modern state of it. Professional hockey in the view of screenwriter Nancy Dowd has devolved into a shallow show of grandstanding and violence, in which the blood-dripped spectacle is more important than the skating or the scoring. It remains the one mainstream team sport in which fighting between players is tacitly encouraged.

Director George Roy Hill seems to have gone out of his way to show as little hockey action as possible, focusing instead on the mayhem and the fisticuffs. In defiance of every sports movie cliche, the big championship game at the end is decided by forfeit.

The result is both very funny and very depressing, at least if you're a hockey purist.

The film is one of those seemingly light comedies that has a strong vein of social commentary running just underneath the surface. The fans of the inept Charlestown Chiefs only get excited about their home team when they resort to goon tactics. In this sense, "Slap Shot" is thematically closer to "Network" than "Semi-Tough" or "The Longest Yard."

It's more akin to "North Dallas Forty" than anything else, and I'd speculate there was cross-pollination between the two creations. Peter Gent's book came out in 1973, before Dowd wrote her screenplay based on her brother's experiences in minor league hockey, but the film version of "Forty" came out two years after "Slap Shot." Indeed, Dowd is reported to have served as an uncredited writer on the football film.

(The Oscar-winner for "Coming Home" enjoyed a low-profile career where she often wrote uncredited or under a pseudonym.)

"Slap Shot" was the third and final pairing of Hill and Newman, after the phenomenal success of "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" and "The Sting." He also made another film, the underrated "The Great Waldo Pepper," with Newman's co-star in those other two films, Robert Redford. The easy, loose feel of Newman's performance is probably due to their well-established rapport.

Newman plays Reg Dunlop, a once-great player eking out an existence as player-coach of the Chiefs. When the local mill is scheduled to close, it becomes clear that the team's mysterious owner plans to disband it. Reg, who is cagey if not necessarily intelligent, comes up with the idea of making the team viable to be sold to a new owner by amping up the violence.

The impetus for this new tactic is the arrival of the Hanson brothers, a trio of young hockey enforcers who have become the most enduring iconography of the film. The brothers' thick black glasses and long hair became their trademark, both in the movie and real life. They were based on an actual trio of brothers who were hockey players, and in fact two of the three were played by the actual siblings. The third couldn't appear because he had been called up to the NHL. Many former and current pro hockey players also acted in the movie.

The Hansons are angelic bruisers, who play with toy cars when not in the rink and dole out punches and brutal take-downs when in it. There seems to be no malice in them, being perfectly polite and respectful of their elders. To them, that's simply the way hockey is played. It's an opportunity to hit people without the fear of arrest ... or at least less chance of it.

In a couple of famous scenes, the Hansons start a fight when the teams are doing their warm-up skate, and are the victims of a reprisal as soon as the puck is dropped. Perhaps the funniest moment in the film is during the national anthem, when a referee clued into the Hansons' tactics screams at him not to try any of that stuff on his rink. "I'm trying to listen to the fucking song!" the lead Hanson retorts, and this sideways appeal to patriotism shuts the other man up.

After some initial hesitation, the other members of the Chiefs happily join the punch-drunk party, especially when they start racking up wins as a result. The one player who won't go along is Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), the team's clean-cut leading scorer. The noble knight-errant of the story, Ned refuses to sully the purity of the game ... at least until it serves his purposes.

Things get so bad that Reg starts openly hitting on Ned's deeply depressed wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse), who dresses like a man, drinks like a fish and drives like a hellion. He's only doing it in hopes of riling Ned up, but is nonplussed when his wooing works and Lily actually shows up on his doorstep with dog and suitcase in tow.

Reg foists her off on his estranged wife (Jennifer Warren), who he thinks will serve as a model of how happy a woman can be when she gives her hockey-playing husband the boot. Part of the comedic gold of Reg's machinations is that he genuinely feels like he's doing everyone a favor. He's really a manipulative mook, but he's so gosh darn charming at it.

The roll call of supporting players is rich and deep, including Strother Martin as the Chiefs' bow-tied, conniving PR man; M. Emmet Walsh as the local newspaper hockey beat reporter, who's always "trying to capture the spirit of the thing" but usually getting conned  into carrying Reg's water; Swoosie Kurtz as an uptight hockey wife; Melinda Dillon as an enemy player's lovesick wife who has a fling with Reg; and Jerry Houser as a player who thinks Reg's goon philosophy is not incompatible with the New Age harmonies of yoga and meditation to which he's attuned.

Personally, I'm not much of a hockey fan. It's too violent, but if you took the violence out everyone would realize how profoundly boring it is. I think the greatest trick of "Slap Shot" is undermining the state of hockey while mining it for comedy gold.

3.5 stars out of four

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