Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
As a rule, I loathe sports movies; their clichés in particular - like the coach who inspires a lacklustre team and, through his guidance,
takes them all the way to the championship.
Slap Shot is not that sort of movie. Directed by George Roy Hill, famous for among others The Sting and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, and starring Paul Newman, it is instead an exposé of 1970s' local league ice hockey which tells the story of how a third-rate coach, with little to recommend him beyond loyalty to his team, sells out all concepts of sportsmanship and fair play in the interests of pleasing a crowd and winning a few matches. It is also a commentary on late 1970s US industrial decline, and how the death of manufacturing hollowed out whole communities. Finally, it's also an extremely good (and extremely funny) film, one that deserves mentioning in the same breath as Roy Hill's other, more famous, movies.
Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, ageing player/ coach for the Charlestown Chiefs, a team which is due to fold following the closure of the mill in its hometown. Reggie's marriage is over, his star player's wife is unhappy and alcoholic, and the team's losing streak is absurdly long. Roy Hill shows Charlestown as smoke filled and grimy, an industrial town soon to have no industry.
Against this backdrop, team manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin), hires three brothers as new players for the team, these brothers are the Hanson brothers, based closely on the real life Carlson brothers, and played in fact by two of the genuine Carlson brothers. The brothers are goons, showing no knowledge of technique or concept of fair play, instead appearing violent, childish and irrational. Dunlop at first won't field them, but once he does he realises that the crowd love the violence, love gladiatorial spectacle, and soon the Chiefs are on a winning streak fuelled by viciously aggressive play and deliberate injuring of rival teams' players.
Much of the cast are real hockey players, and it shows in the on-ice action, which is fluid and convincing. The film naturally contains a fair few matches, each more violent than the last, and several of the incidents portrayed are based on real events. The Carlson brothers attack the fans, players engage in stick-fencing, one team member starts dressing in a Dracula-styled cape and referring to himself as killer. Dunlop taunts opposing team members with personal insults, deliberately starts fights, the messier the action gets on ice the more the fans applaud.
Parallels with 1975 movie Rollerball are obvious, both films carry a message about violence being used to pacify an increasingly fickle mob/ audience, both feature exciting and brutal sports sequences, but of the two Slap Shot is by far the more accomplished film. Rollerball is let down by the on-pitch violence being more interesting than the off-pitch drama, undercutting its own message. Slap Shot features exciting on-ice action, but the off-ice action is equally interesting, Dunlop's womanising and his failed attempts to impress his ex-wife (who has plainly moved on), his star player's own failing marriage and increasing doubts about the new approach the team is taking, the increasingly excitable fan-base, all are well realised.
On top of the personal dramas, there is the drama of the team itself. Dunlop, trying to maintain morale, deceives the team into believing that a buyer has been found for them, that the end of the season will not mean the end of the team. To that end he spends much of the film trying to track down the team's current owner, only to find that nobody seems to know exactly who that is - a clear comment on faceless capitalism and its impact on working people.
There are themes then of industrial decline, of class exploitation, of the effects on personal relationships of economic malaise. All this takes it beyond the usual scope of the sports movie. So too though does the sheer quality of Newman's performance, here at the top of his game and unafraid to show the effects of age, desperate hope and mounting despair, while at the same time being effortlessly charming and often extremely funny (and exceptionally rude, Newman maintains that before this film he didn't swear, after it he never lost the habit).
Slap Shot is in the collection of pretty much every ice hockey fan, at a game in Canada this year I heard a fan behind me describe an opposing team's player's move as being "a Chiefs' move," a testament to the impact the film had. It's a mistake though to see it just as a film for sports fans, it's the marrying of a director and a star who are comfortable with each other, and with the material, and who together produce a film that's both a highly successful comedy but one that still contains a level of very real social commentary that few contemporary Hollywood films would approach. Highly recommended!
DVD extras include a feature commentary with the Hanson brothers, which is largely a collection of rather dull reminiscences ("hey, remember that guy? What a great guy"), the theatrical trailer, production notes, notes on cast and filmmakers, excerpted favourite scenes of the Hanson brothers and, most interestingly, a short documentary - Puck Talk with the Hanson brothers, in which they talk about the impact the film has had on their lives and on their involvement with hockey. A documentary notable for the fact the Hanson brothers seem wholly unaware that the film is actually deeply critical of their impact on the sport.