Saturday 4 February 2012

Movie Review: Slap Shot (1977)

Skating the line between satire and mockery, Slap Shot collapses into a heap of bloodied shirts and cheap vulgarity. Paul Newman cruises through the movie with a hint of embarrassment, and just barely manages to elevate the material above the disaster line.

The fictional Charlestown Chiefs are a minor league professional hockey team, struggling on the ice due to an abject lack of talent and off the ice due to severe financial trouble. Manipulative player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman) is well past his prime as a player but tries to hold the team together. When the closure of the local saw mill is announced, further decimating attendance and revenue, the team manager looks to shutter the team, throwing the players out of work by the end of the season.

Deploying the dubious skills of the three bespectacled but blood-thirsty and quick-fisted Hanson brothers, Dunlop decides to adopt thuggish on-ice tactics to win dirty, in the hopes of attracting investors to buy and relocate the Chiefs.

Director George Roy Hill, who collaborated with Newman on Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and The Sting, veers far from these classics. It is difficult to imagine Slap Shot looking good even on paper, the Nancy Dowd script falling in the cracks between crass parody and clumsy homage. There are no characters that are remotely sympathetic, and the movie gets disoriented attempting to decide whether all the goonery is there to be enjoyed or condemned. Hill tries to have it both ways but settles for heavy handed acquiescence with thuggery that passes as entertainment among the knuckle-dragging crowd.

Newman's character not just promotes the on-ice cruelty but tries to manipulate his fellow-players, their wives, the team owner, the press and his estranged wife. It is sad watching a desperate character pushing the buttons of the hopeless and the vapid, and no one, least of all Newman, emerges with any credit. The supporting cast is weak, the likes of Strother Martin, Lindsay Crouse and Michael Ontkean lost among all the blood and crud.

Slap Shot does end with a shot across the bows of those who promote violence while pretending to be horrified by sexuality, but by then it's too little and too late to save the film's focus. Slap Shot is trapped between celebrating and castigating the worst attributes of guydome, and amidst the uncertainty the movie draws a penalty for misdirected humour.

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