Back in the early 80’s one of my neighborhood friends came from a family of big-time hockey fans and they all played in local leagues. The stories they told me left me scratching my head. Why would anyone in their right mind play such a game? I’d seen The Bruins on TV and while the NHL certainly had it’s share of dudes throwing down the gloves, these local games sounded like UFC on ice. I thought that maybe the reason that each game ended with a winning score of 1 or 2 goals was because these players spent more time on the ice beating the crap out of each other than shuffling the puck around. Then they took me with them one night to a minor league game where I saw the truth plain and simple. Each line-up consisted of a lot of french sounding names and by game’s end, everyone on the ice had blood on their uniforms and sticks. There were even a couple of spots where the boards and glass were left with spatter. From that time on, I’ve spent a few seasons trying to get into hockey but it just won’t happen. I don’t know why. I certainly have room in my life for another seasonal sport to bridge the gap between football season and baseball but I just can’t seem to get hip to it.
For this lack of interest, the hockey movie Slap Shot has remained low on my list of priority movies to see. I changed that over the weekend when one of the cable channels I usually ignore ran a sweet marathon of middle-profile 70’s cult movies. Slap Shot was doubled up with a run of Smokey & The Bandit, which I also took in. What a fool I’d been.
Paul Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, the player-coach of the Charlestown Chiefs, a minor league team from a rust-belt milltown that has fallen on hard times. If it’s not bad enough that the local employer, the mill in question, is about to fold and bring a devastating wave of unemployment to the area, the Chiefs are about to fold as well thanks to a myriad of factors but mostly because they suck. With bad attendance and the looming threat of even fewer ticket sales thanks to no local economy, Dunlop plants a story in the paper that the team is in negotiations to be sold to investors from a retirement community in Florida but only if they can turn the reputation around. To make matters worse, the team’s General Manager has recently brought in three idiots in the form of the The Hanson Brothers (Jeff, Steve and Jack) who remain benched for most of the season yet never seem to notice that they get no ice-time.
I love sports movies. Particularly comedies. Even though the average sports comedy plays out like a carbon copy of The Bad News Bears, it only goes to prove that movie’s formula for success. Slap Shot is a much more adult version sporting a cast of well-meaning misfits and the antics necessary to warrant laughs and wins. There’s something honest and very real about Slap Shot, though.
When Dunlop gets some dirt on an opposing goalie’s wife’s sexual preference, he uses it to distract the goalie long enough for the Chief’s to score the game’s winning goal. This sparks the beginning of an upturn in the Chief’s luck. It means playing dirty which upsets Chief’s player Ned Braden who prefers playing “old time hockey” and keeping it clean. With Dunlop desperate to turn the team around, this refusal results in Braden being benched. The introduction of the Hanson Brothers to the ice is another matter, entirely. Prior to the game, Slap Shot is a cute, albeit foul-mouthed comedy about a shitty hockey team but once the unbelievably weird Hanson’s hit the ice, the movie makes a sharp left turn and becomes a complete shit show. The Hansons turn out to be psychopaths and most of their time on the ice is spent beating anything that moves. Everything they do involves checking someone into the boards and then pummeling them. Dunlop is stunned and thinks this is the final nail in the coffin, but The Hansons prove to be a real crowd pleaser. The people of Charlestown, looking for escapist thrills and violence to vent the frustration of their mill closing begin showing up in droves and following the team around for games.
The Hansons are the enduring face of the movie. Fans of the movie love these guys and even though their dialog is limited, their action on the ice is what keeps people coming back and with good reason, they’re a god damn riot. Leading up to their debut for the Chiefs, they’re sold strictly as idiots. Their luggage is stuffed with toys and their mentality matches the contents of their bags. They’re witnessed early on wrapping their hands with tin foil for whatever purpose that serves. It’s obvious from the outset that they’re being built up for something but the display of total carnage when they finally take the ice is shocking. What could be the best quality of these characters is that acting as The Hansons isn’t much of a stretch for any of them. Two of The Hansons, Steve and Jack were actual minor league hockey playing brothers for whom the characters are based on. They’re an obvious exagerration but the scene where Steve charges into the stands after being hit by a set of keys is something that actually happened. Whether or not his bad eye-sight resulted in him pounding several people until he found the person who threw the keys is up for debate.
The great characterization doesn’t end with The Hansons. They’re like Boba Fett, a sidelines character that people seem to love in spite of limited screen time. The real story is about Dunlop and the cost of his con. There’s a lot more going on in the story which draws out the runtime to an almost unnecessary degree. I also don’t think of comedy when I think of Paul Newman but his character backed up with the natural rhythm of the locker room banter makes for lines as funny and quotable as Caddyshack (which I consider to be the pinnacle of comedic movies). Yes. Slap Shot is that funny. It may not be as zany but the comedy is top notch and the honesty of the struggling hockey setting manages to keep one foot in plausibility while keeping the other in the aforementioned Bad News Bears mold. The story takes it’s time getting to where it’s going and tries its best to corral the multiple subplots which are a small stumbling block for the overall picture but the pace of the dialog rescues the movie from the peaks and valleys of the multiple plotlines.
Slap Shot is a worthwhile movie for everyone who doesn’t mind sustained salty language, a comedy that fans of sports and sport movies will love and an absolute must-see for hockey fans. I’m quite surprised that it never achieved greater status than a sports cult flick.