Forgotten Gem: Slap Shot (*****) is as good as it gets

Slap Shot (1977) - IMDb
Slap Shot – 1977

Director George Roy Hill
Screenplay Nancy Dowd
Starring Paul Newman, Strother Martin, Michael Ontkean, Jennifer Warren, Lindsay Crouse, Jerry Houser, Andrew Duncan, Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson, David Hanson, Yvon Barrette, Allan Nicholls, Brad Sullivan, Melinda Dillon, Swoosie Kurtz, M. Emmett Walsh, Ned Dowd, Paul Dooley

I can’t believe I never watched this film before now. I have always been a fan of Paul Newman. Never really cared for hockey. Either way, when I heard the commotion around folk heroes the Hansons (Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson and Hanson), the needle wasn’t moved. It should have been. They are one of the two best things going for the film.

The story comes from Nancy Dowd, writing about her brother Ned’s experiences in low level hockey leagues playing for the Johnstown Jets in Pennsylvania. Many of the players and situations are featured in the film, this goes for the original Carlson brothers and Dave “Killer” Hanson. The film has many plumb roles throughout the cast and there are many of Ned Dowd’s former teammates (including Hanson and the Carlsons). Much of what happens in the film presages real life events in sports since, including The Malice at the Palace and Bounty Gate.

The story is somewhat familiar to anyone who has seen Major League and Bull Durham. A loser hockey team, the Charleston Chiefs, are going nowhere. Player / Coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman) begins to adopt a morer vigilante based form of playing, rewarding his team for goonish behavior ast they begin a winning streak. Very soon, he is notified that the team is going to fold in conjunction with the local mill going under.

Women surrounding the team, including Dunlop’s estranged wife (Warren), are all represented in a fashion that is liberated, without being political. This is thanks in large part to Newman’s ability to show appreciation with absolutely no hint of having his manhood threatened. He goes with the flow, showing appreciation and a guile that few actors of his or any time could portray. He has one goal in mind, to keep his team afloat and start winning. Everything else is secondary, even with his ability to switch gears when the need arises.

The team is hilarious. Jerry Houser as the incredibly earnest and soft spoken goon, Killer Carlson. Barrette’s opening interview with Duncan’s Carr is worth the price of admission. Mendillo, Nicholls, Ponton and more allow Otkean to play his pacifist much more effectively. His finale at center court makes the perfect contrast to the “serious game” that the other goons are playing.

The real surprise and the definite treat of the film are the Hansons. They have such an innocence and exuberance for the game of hockey, they carry whatever portion of the film that is not being driven by Newman. They don’t even enter the film until a 20 minutes go by, and then it’s another 25 minute before we see them play. Their enthusiasm is “embarrassing” right until the magical moment they first enter the game.

This moment is crystallized in my memory. They perform an eloquent poetry of violence and skill that it takes my breath away. I have seen it three times in the last 12 hours and I could watch it 100 more times. They are in their own universe, always enjoying their own company and always ready to puck.

Seeing Newman’s reaction to the brothers move from disappointment to amazement is a treat. When they are complimented by a teammate as “…a fucking disgrace…” it is beautiful. They perform many felonious acts in that first glorious game. The shots they take look as lethal as they are hilarious.

Hanson Brothers show us what they’ve got…

The soundtrack to Slap Shot, including a couple well known Fleetwood Mac hits , Elton John’s Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word and Leo Sayer’s You Make Me Feel Like Dancing come from an era before lawyers got involved in getting paid, according to research by Roger Ebert. Thank goodness I didn’t watch the laserdisc released before they straightened out the rights to the music. Right Back Where We Started From by Maxine Nightingale feels right as an anthem, even if they play it a few too many times.

Nancy Dowd’s vision is a clear eyed look at hockey and how it’s very appeal is the thing that keeps it an arm’s distance for many. Her portrayal is of a world that should be hard for most of us to understand. The team’s best player is a stand in for those of us who can’t understand the appeal of the violence. The rest of the film is for the rest of the fans who know the role it plays in life. There is as good of a depiction of the game, with no apologies or excuses, as anyone could expect. She is not here to explain it to you. You get to judge for yourself. Dowd had a string of great screenplays, even winning an Oscar for Coming Home. Then, inexplicably, started writing under an alias.

That this vision is so effective is thanks to George Roy Hill’s clear eyed direction. He allows the characters to be easy going and violent. It’s a morality that runs close to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. If you’re a part of it, it all makes sense. If you don’t understand it, well that doesn’t bother them at all.

There is a shining legacy in Slap Shot‘s wake. Gene Siskel himself gave the movie only **1/2 stars upon initial viewing, then two weeks later he realized his mistake. Eventually it was among the top films of the year. It’s got to be in my top 10 sports movies of all time. I think life would have been a little better for me had I watched this before now. That’s okay, though, because life is still good from here on out.

(***** out of *****)

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