Directed by George Roy HillSlap Shot marked the third collaboration between director George Roy Hill and star Paul Newman and finds the duo at their most juvenile. This is a good thing. Under the guise of a sports satire set in the world of professional hockey, Slap Shot is instead an anarchic, violent, drunken brawl of a movie that leaves you as bloody and dazed as the players on the ice. The story, for what its worth, deals with a deadbeat North American hockey team on the brink of annihilation. On a seemingly endless losing streak, the owner decides to sell the Charlestown Chiefs and send the players back into 9 to 5 hell. Unable to prove their worth by playing old time hockey (i.e. well) player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman) decides on a new approach. Seeing the crowds love of violence (They dont want ya to score goals they want blood!!!) the team go ape shit and slash, hack and smash their way towards the Championship trophy. With Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), Hill and Newman showed an easy charm both in acting and direction. But freed from the niceties of the mainstream and doey-eyed cohort Robert Redford, the duo have replaced easy for sleazy and gone right for the jugular of blue collar America. With the Steel Mills closing around them and people out of work, the Chiefs become a ferocious outlet for frustration and social despair. And they do this by drinking, fighting and fucking the American Dream come true. Hill directs this with a kind of bull-in-a-China-shop chaos (both on the ice and off) and for his part Newman becomes the epitome of American opportunism. His Reggie Dunlop is the ultimate bullshit artist. He hits on fellow players wives, drinks, blackmails his cross-dressing manager, lies to his teammates (by promising the club will be bought by a retirement community in Florida) and is the sole instigator of the teams new barbaric approach to sport. You gotta twist em and fuck with em, he tells fellow player Ned (Michael Ontkean).
But Newman has charisma by the bucket full and with a twinkle in his eye hes virtually impossible to refuse. In fact so gleeful is his performance that youd follow him anywhere and happily stamp on a few skulls if he said it was ok. To paraphrase Marcia Gay Harden in Millers Crossing, he makes being a son of a bitch a real point of pride. His fellow team mates are equally unwholesome (made up primarily of losers and low lives). But the fact that these arent the bronzed demigods usually lauded in sports films (see Rocky II V or Any Given Sunday) gives the film a touch of realism. This is probably down to writer Nancy Dowd whose brother was a professional Hockey player (and technical advisor to the film). Indeed much of the supporting cast were drawn from the real life club The Johnstown Jets, including Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson and David Hanson, known on screen as the Hanson Brothers. Ah the Hanson Brothers: long haired, bi-focal wearing degenerates (They look fuckin horrible, as one player explains) who become the teams principle administrators of pain. On the ice they lack grace but know how to take out the opponents teeth and leave blood on the ice. They lack self control too and cant help themselves from diving into the crowd and beating the shit out of a supporter who hits one of them with a missile (they beat up everyone around him too just to be sure).
But they are also childlike and loveable, and play with their toy cars and watch cartoons when not in the rink. And that perhaps is the films chief strength. It is too wide-eyed to offend and gets away with bloody murder on sheer ballsy charm alone. It doesnt condemn the violence (although come the final bought it is gentleness and grace that wins through) and is instead playful and tongue-in-cheek. Slap Shot may not be the greatest sports movie of all time, but it could sure beat the living crap out of most of em.