Rooted in America’s downturned economic reality of the late ‘70s, “Slap Shot” (1977) was the brainchild of screenwriter Nancy Dowd, the sister of minor league hockey player Ned Dowd of the Johnstown Jets. Dowd’s ferociously comic script plays on behind-the-scenes aspects of how a ‘70s-era minor league hockey team conducts business. Cursing, alcoholism, sex, silly promotional stunts, sarcastic radio interviews, arrests, and brutal violence are all part of a sports team that helps sustain an urban population. Misogyny meets its match in Dowd’s tough female characters that stand their ground as well as their macho counterparts. For every sexist jibe, an effective riposte follows.
Director George Roy Hill advanced the box office successes he enjoyed with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting” by casting Paul Newman in the lead role as Reg Dunlop, an aging hockey player and coach for the fictional Charleston Chiefs. Newman’s prodigious gift for chewing scenery takes flight when he puts on skates during comical hockey games that become more bloodbaths than sporting events.
News that the town’s local mill is shutting down puts a dark cloud over the losing Chiefs hockey team. Newman’s optimistic character takes charge, turning the team into a squad of goons more concerned with throwing punches than scoring goals. The plan works; more blood on the ice means more butts in seats. Reg plants a bogus story in the local newspaper that an unnamed investor from a Florida retirement community is interested in buying the Chiefs. The ploy temporarily animates the Chiefs into a winning team even as Reg’s personal relationships falter.
“Slap Shot” is a sports movie that revels in details of milieu, plot and character. Smokestacks billow white plumes from a perpetually overcast industrial skyline. Everything is old and weather-beaten. Every victory is tainted. A trio of brothers (the Hansons) — hired more for their ability to fight than to score goals — provide a wealth of character tics — from the toys they take with them on the road to the Coke-bottle glasses that they audaciously wear like science-geeks-turned-jocks. Michael Ontkean’s Ned Braden stands up for integrity in the game of hockey, and yet has none when it comes to his girlfriend Lily (Lindsay Crouse). The couple’s relationship of confused sexuality contributes significantly to the film’s one-of-a-kind conclusion.
Playing “dirty” proves more lucrative than playing fair. It’s a defective principle that coincidentally took over in corporate and political philosophy around the same time that “Slap Shot” identified an embarrassing truth surrounding hockey. If viewed as a harbinger of social realities to come, “Slap Shot” is more than a little perceptive. The mill is closed; entire cities lost their livelihoods, and the goons took over. At least you can still laugh out loud at “Slap Shot.”
Rated R. 123 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)