Slap Shot (1977)

D: George Roy Hill
S: Paul Newman, Michael Ontkean, Jennifer Warren

Entertaining sport-centred comic drama following the adventures of a third rate ice hockey team whose season is suddenly enlivened when veteran player/coach Paul Newman opts for dirty tactics, much to the delight of the bloodthirsty audience. Sprightly direction from George Roy Hill, opting for more obviously box-office friendly material after the failure of The Great Waldo Pepper with the other star of his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, keeps the film moving even when the dramatic side follows a predictable path. It does come up with a surprising climax and a nicely ambiguous finale, but this is otherwise strictly routine for the genre.

The film centres as much on the backstage wrangling between Newman and his conscience-stricken star player Michael Ontkean (an actor with genuine experience in the sport) and the plans to wrap up the club which hang over their season as it is with the action on the ice. Nancy Dowd's script (inspired by her brother's own hockey career) manages to generate an authentic locker-room ambiance of easygoing masculinity and infantile self-delusion (with plenty of dialogue bound to be cut on TV). Yet despite some pointed digs at the sport and the sportsmen (and the money interests behind both), it is less concerned with issues and realism than grafting an old 'root for the underdog' scenario onto a sport little featured in American films to date.

The real laughs are of the pain and violence variety, which may not be to all tastes. Hill builds nicely to the scene when the team finally get tough with a slow burn around three bespectacled brothers hired by shifty manager Strother Martin (in another neat supporting role) whose penchant for speaking as a group and playing with toy cars has Newman doubtful about their potential use. When loosed on the opposition, the three become as destructive as triplet tornadoes and deliver plenty of (literally) slapstick action.

It is questionable just how critical the film is of violence in sports despite its overriding thematic concern with how degrading it is, because the audience's sympathies are still most definitely with the team even when things get especially vicious. The on-the-ice action is also an integral part of its appeal, and Dowd and Hill provide a good balance between the two planes of action. Though it does eventually weigh more heavily towards the character drama (which is predictable but works well enough), the film is likely to be remembered for the buffoonery it seems to decry rather than its voice of protest.

At the centre of everything is Newman, clearly now beginning to address his own aging. He plays a character who is visible older than those around him but who is not quite out of it yet. His constant attempts to rekindle his relationship with estranged wife Lindsay Crouse signal a man in search of a second chance, but knowing deep inside that it would not be on the same terms as before. He holds the screen as magnetically as ever, though his bustle seems desperate and hopeful (as is required by the character) rather than the movements and attitudes of a young leading man. It is a visibly transitional role, but sits alongside his recent characterisations in Hill's previous films as that of the tutor rather than learner.

Overall the film is well put together and well performed. It moves quickly and never spends more time on a scene than is strictly necessary to propel it along to the next one. Though it is never particularly exciting, nor particularly funny, nor ever surprising, it is enjoyable. In the wake of Rocky, it is probably best understood as a contemporary reworking of old-fashioned material, though it has more edge and less sentiment than the 1976 Oscar winner. It will appeal to a broad audience and would sit comfortably alongside many of its generic forebears.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.