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Among sports films, Slap Shot (1977), directed by George Roy Hill, is something of an anomaly. Falling somewhere between a feel-good, audience pleaser like Rocky (1976) where the underdog triumphs and a cynical expose like The Set-up (1949) in which the profession is tarnished by corruption, this tale of a minor-league hockey team facing its final season skates a fine line between a violent slapstick comedy (the ice rink sequences are rife with bloody Three Stooges-like routines) and a sharp social critique of the sport as it impacts the lives of its owners, players and fans.
Paul Newman stars as Reggie Dunlop, coach and player of the Charleston Chiefs, a losing hockey franchise from an economically depressed mill town. Through his own unscrupulous manipulation, Reggie manages to transform his team into unlikely champions by breaking the rules; the Chiefs are encouraged to fight dirty and soon their no-holds-barred approach draws enthusiastic crowds, anxious to see blood on the ice. The team's success is ultimately threatened by a league rival whose members are even more undisciplined and dangerous than the Chief's toughest players.
While some aspects of professional hockey are exaggerated for humorous effect in Slap Shot, the dialogue, particularly the way the players talk during the games and in the locker rooms, is unflinchingly realistic; it's unashamedly profane and has the ring of authenticity. Even more surprising is the fact that it's written by a woman, Nancy Dowd, who would pen the Oscar-winning story treatment for Coming Home (1978) the following year. Dowd modeled her dialogue on tapes that were recorded by her brother Ned, a former hockey player, behind closed doors and on team buses.
In The Films of George Roy Hill by Andrew Horton, Dowd revealed that one of her main objectives in Slap Shot was "To show that the level of violence we have in our entertainment is the thing that prevents people, especially men, from growing up." This is not only evident in the way Dowd depicts team members like the Hanson brothers, a roughneck trio who are first seen demolishing a coke machine, but also in the way she explores the relationships between the team members and the women in their lives. While the Hanson Brothers are clearly more interested in playing with toy trains than hockey groupies, the other players don't fare much better in the bedroom despite their locker room boasts and bravado. Reggie, who initiates an affair with the wife (Lindsay Crouse) of his star player Ned (Michael Ontkean), is driven more by the need to manipulate a problematic team member than desire. And most of the players seem to prefer hanging out in bars with their teammates during off time as opposed to staying home with their wives or girlfriends. Clearly part of the problem can be blamed on the punishing lifestyle of the professional athlete - the constant traveling with little time for privacy or self-reflection, a milieu that Hill perfectly captures in Slap Shot. It's no wonder that some of the hockey wives turn to alcohol or a new sexual partner as solace for their lonely existence.
The depiction of the Chiefs' management and rise to success in Slap Shot is equally unromanticized. The integrity of the sport is shown to be completely compromised by the bottom line - the need to draw huge crowds and generate large profits. [Spoiler Alert] Even at the end when the Chiefs triumph, the victory is a hollow one because we know most of the players are incapable of change and will continue to live in a state of arrested adolescence. Yet, the film's cynicism is often refreshing instead of alienating thanks to its frenetic pacing and anarchic humor that erupts in surprising ways such as Ned's public striptease in the midst of a chaotic game.
Despite the presence of Paul Newman (still a major box office draw at the time), Slap Shot was not a major hit and many critics had mixed feelings about the film's cartoon-like violence and explicit language. Pauline Kael, one of the film's defenders despite some minor reservations, said it best when she wrote, "Hill is making a farcical hymn to violence. Dede Allen's hot-foot editing moves the action along from zinger to zinger, and the Maxine Nightingale record "Right Back Where We Started From" punches up the pacing. The beat gives the film a relentlessness, and expletives are sprinkled around like manure to give it funky seasoning...Paul Newman, as Reggie....is scarred and bruised, and there are gold rims on his chipped teeth; you don't see much of his eyes. He has never grown up - he's a raucous American innocent, an overage jock, thin-skinned but a little thickheaded. Newman's likableness in the role is infectious." He should have received an Oscar nomination for his performance but Slap Shot was ignored in all categories during 1977's Academy Award race, the year Annie Hall claimed most of the major awards.
Producer: Robert L. Crawford, Stephen Friedman, Robert J. Wunsch
Director: George Roy Hill
Screenplay: Nancy Dowd
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Film Editing: Dede Allen
Art Direction: Henry Bumstead
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Paul Newman (Reggie Dunlop), Strother Martin (Joe McGrath), Michael Ontkean (Ned Braden), Jennifer Warren (Francine Dunlop), Lindsay Crouse (Lily Braden), Jerry Houser ("Killer" Carson).
by Jeff Stafford