Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Friday, April 15, 2011

Slap Shot (1977)

I'm a sport fan.  I love playing sports and watching sports. I played basketball in high school. Football, soccer, and golf would rank as my favorite sports to watch. Yet when it comes to watching sports films, movies about football, basketball, or golf usually bore me. The sports film I enjoy are about sports I don't participate in.  BREAKING AWAY (1979) has competitive bicycling in it but it's really a coming of age film about four young men in Bloomington, Indiana. RAGING BULL (1980) has some amazing boxing sequences but it's really about boxer Jake LaMotta and his inner demons.  Baseball is the one major sport that has had some decent films made about it such as THE NATURAL (1984), FIELD OF DREAMS (1989), BULL DURHAM (1988) , and EIGHT MEN OUT (1988).

Hockey is the sports subject in director George Roy Hill's film SLAP SHOT (1977). Many times over the years, I've had either a friend or stranger tell me that I need to see SLAP SHOT. They mention the colorful language in it.  Or they bring up the Hanson Brothers (more about them later). Hockey is another sport I rarely watch, usually during the Olympics. SLAP SHOT is an insider's view of minor league hockey. Screenwriter Nancy Dowd wrote the story based on her brother Ned Dowd's experiences and stories playing minor league hockey. In fact, Ned has a bit role as Ogie Ogilthorpe, a hated rival hockey player who's even spent some time in jail.

A great sports film has action scenes of the game or the fight or the race but for me, it's more about what's happening on the periphery that catches my interest. What do the characters do before and after the game? What are they talking about in the dugout or the sidelines away from the action or on the team bus between cities? I tend to like sports films that deal with amateur sports or minor league sports like THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976; Little League baseball) or BULL DURHAM (minor league baseball).  SLAP SHOT takes the audience into the unglamorous world of the Charlestown Chiefs, a minor league hockey team in a fictitious Pennsylvania mill town.

Reggie "Reg" Dunlop (Paul Newman) is the player coach of the lowly Chiefs. Dwelling in the cellar of the Federal Hockey League standings, the Chiefs are playing uninspired hockey. Fans heckle Dunlop whether he's on the ice or answering questions on the radio with Jim Carr (Andrew Duncan), the team's toupee wearing sports announcer. Their best player and leading scorer, Ivy League grad Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), is constantly fighting with his new wife Lily (Lindsey Crouse) who despises the life of a hockey player's spouse. Joe McGrath (Strother Martin), the Chiefs cheap General Manager, forces the players to model clothes at a fashion show against their will in one of his many public relations schemes.  When McGrath purchases the contracts of three goofy looking brothers who wear thick Coke bottle glasses - the Hanson's, Dunlop is sure the Chiefs have hit rock bottom. Then, it's announced that the town's mill is going to close soon. If the mill closes and people lose their jobs, Dunlop fears the Chiefs will fold as well.

So Dunlop makes up a story that some investors are interested in buying the team and moving them to Florida, planting the lie with local sports writer Dickie Dunn (M. Emmet Walsh) hoping to inspire the team and its fans.  Dunlop changes tactics and begins to play dirty, taunting opposing players about their ex-wives, using the Hanson Brothers as "goons" to start fights. The Chiefs begin winning. The town begins to support them again. Fans and groupies follow them from city to city. Dunlop is sure their winning will land them a new owner. But not everyone is happy. Ned doesn't like the type of hockey the Chiefs are playing. He's a purist. He won't "goon" it up for Dunlop.

Dunlop benches Ned for not wanting to fight. Dunlop's ex-wife Francine (Jennifer Warren) tells him she's moving out of town. The Hanson Brothers get thrown into jail (temporarily) for almost starting a riot during one game. The team's most laid back player Dave Carlson (Jerry Houser) takes on the nickname "Killer" to impress Dunlop.  The Chiefs make it to the playoffs to play their rivals from Syracuse for the league championship. Dunlop loves his players too much and realizes he can't deceive them anymore. He confesses that the Florida deal is phony and the team is folding after their last game. He promises no more fighting and a return to "old time hockey."  But the Chiefs' fans don't want to see clean hockey and Syracuse has loaded the team with its own goons like Ogie Ogilthorpe and Tim "Dr. Hook" McCracken (Paul D'Amato).

Director Hill and Screenwriter Dowd capture perfectly the quirkiness of an athlete's life in the minors. The player's wives, ex-wives, the groupies, the road trips, the drinking and poker games, an errant puck striking the organist during a game, the vagabond life in hotel rooms and team buses, the small talk between players before the game starts, SLAP SHOT has it all. Whether intentional or not, SLAP SHOT goes out of its way to be vulgar and outrageous. In one scene, actress Melinda Dillon as Suzanne Hanrahan, a rival player's wife, lays in bed with Newman and plays her whole dialogue scene topless. SLAP SHOT may not have as many four letter words as SCARFACE (1983) but it has more colorful four letter words then any other film that comes to mind. Dunlop and the Chiefs talk a blue streak that would make Vince Lombardi blush.  Bad language in most films is as repugnant as senseless violence. But Newman swearing like a construction worker is pure bliss. SLAP SHOT is unabashedly boorish.

Paul Newman's character Reg Dunlop is another aging, over the hill character similar to his Butch Cassidy in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) also directed by George Roy Hill. Newman even looks a little like hockey legend Gordie Howe in SLAP SHOT. Newman's still hustling only this time it's not billiards like in THE HUSTLER (1961) but hustling to get fans into the arena, to get wins for the franchise, and to keep playing and coaching the game he loves. The Chiefs are his family. His players are his sons. Michael Ontkean as Ned Braden is the younger version of Reg Dunlop. Reg was young and married once and hockey wrecked his marriage. Ned is a cynic and a hockey purist. He's a newlywed but bickers with his wife.  He's smart enough to be working on Wall Street but avoids real life by playing hockey. He may end up divorced just like Reg. Reg sees the similarities and tries to make Ned jealous by having Lily stay with him. He doesn't want Ned to become like he has.

The supporting cast for SLAP SHOT is perfect.  In a film about team sports, the supporting players need to be memorable and likable.  Jeff Hanson (Jeff Carlson), Steve Hanson (Steve Carlson), and Jack Hanson (David Hanson) as the Hanson Brothers almost single-handedly steal the film and Newman looks happy to let them do it.  Whether their taping foil to their knuckles before a game or playing with their toy cars in a motel room, the Hanson Brothers child-like exuberance is infectious. I don't want to spoil all their highlights but SLAP SHOT is worth watching just to see them. But the other actors hold their own. Jerry Houser as Killer Carlson, Allen Nichols as Johnny Upton, and Yvon Barrette as French-Canadian goalie Denis Lemieux have their moments to shine.

SLAP SHOT reunites Newman with one of the greatest character actors of all time - Mr. Strother Martin as the GM Joe McGrath.  Newman and Martin had also worked together in COOL HAND LUKE (1967) and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) but in SLAP SHOT they get to play friends for once. Martin usually played supporting roles in westerns so it's good to see him in a modern film. SLAP SHOT also introduces some character actors early in their careers that we will see in future films like Paul Dooley (BREAKING AWAY), Swoosie Kurtz (AGAINST ALL ODDS), and M. Emmet Walsh (BLOOD SIMPLE).

Director George Roy Hill has a nice touch with ensemble casts and I liked the way he stages many of the group scenes in SLAP SHOT with dialogue criss-crossing over one another, very Robert Altman-like with its multiple conversations all happening at once. Hill's THE STING (1973) is another fine example of his work with a big group of actors. SLAP SHOT captures the late 1970's perfectly with players wearing fur coats and patent leather pants and big Afros. Maxine Nightingale's "Right Back Where We Started From" is among the highlights on the soundtrack. Editor Dede Allen gives the film a great pace and rhythm. Except for a couple of clunky pieces in the middle, SLAP SHOT moves along briskly until the final championship game when director Hill seems to have tired of all the fighting and tries something even more outrageous to end the game. I'm not positive he succeeds.

But Hill, Dowd, and Newman do succeed in making SLAP SHOT the Stanley Cup Champion of hockey films. Some film lovers might choose MIRACLE (1984) about the U.S. hockey team's improbable win over Russia in the 1980 Olympics or THE CUTTING EDGE (1992) with its mixture of hockey and ice skating but for the best hockey comedy ever, SLAP SHOT wins it by a couple of pucks.

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