Viking Night: Slap Shot
By Bruce Hall
May 20, 2015
It’s strange, watching a movie you’ve previously known only by reputation. Although you've never watched it, you’re so used to hearing everyone else’s opinion that it feels like you have. So when you finally see it, you do so with a fairly well defined set of expectations. If everyone says the movie you’re about to see is a classic, then you’re going to be on the lookout for something that looks like that. Maybe that’s why Slap Shot surprised me so much. I would have expected parts of the film to be dated. It was 1977 and not even Paul Newman looked good in plaid pants. What I didn’t expect is for a hockey movie starring Paul Newman to feel so inert. It was the complete opposite of what I was told, which is that this movie would make me laugh so hard, I'd inexplicably wake up in a dumpster 500 miles away, covered with barbecue sauce and still laughing.
Sadly, I was lied to. There was no dumpster sauce. None at all.
The slap shot is supposedly the hardest shot in hockey, because of the intricate technical precision involved. But if executed well and at the right time, that one shot can pay off big. I assume this is the metaphor to be drawn from the journey of Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), the perennially unsuccessful coach of the Charlestown Chiefs. The Chiefs are a crappy minor league hockey team based in one of those sleepy blue collar towns John Cougar Mellencamp is always singing about. Reggie isn’t very good at his job but it doesn’t bother him, as long as he can use his semi celebrity status to score free drinks and cheap sex at any bar in town. The team may be terrible, but they provide a meaningful diversion for a decaying community whose primary employer is the old Allegory Plant on the edge of town.
So of course the plant gets scheduled for shutdown, making an already miserable season look like it might be the end of the line for the Chiefs. With the town’s main source of income drying up, it’s only a matter of time before the stands are empty. Desperate to save his team - and prevent himself from having to get a real job - Reggie decides he’s got nothing to lose by playing the worst guys on his bench, the notoriously violent - and intellectually challenged - Hanson Brothers. Since they can’t skate and may not even know the rules, the brothers resort to beating the opposing team unconscious. This does not go over well with the other players, including their own teammates. But the fans love it, and suddenly Reggie has his Big Plan.
The Chiefs will become a goon squad, with two or three players violently assaulting the opponent at all times. Meanwhile, the other guys would score goals. As the Chiefs start winning games - and winning them dirty - the stands will be packed, and the team will be saved. Of course things don't go quite so smoothly, requiring Reggie to increase both the amount and the potency of his bullshit. As the lies pile up it begins to affect his relationships, including his best friend Ned (Michael Ontkean), his boss Joe (Strother Martin), flighty ex-wife Francine (Jennifer Warren), and an opposing player's wife who may or may not be a lesbian when she's not banging Reggie. That's a lot of balls to keep in the air, and Nancy Dowd's twisty screenplay really wants to keep you guessing where they'll land. I'd give it a passing grade for effort if it weren't the biggest thing wrong with the movie.
One of the interesting things about Reggie as a character is that it's never clear when he's self-serving and when he's sincere. His desire to save the team could be to help his friends, or it could be because he has no discernible skills outside of another man's wife. He's either a really bad planner or a self-serving bastard. He's less of an anti-hero than he is a borderline sociopath. This, and the story’s refusal to fill characters with more than a throwaway line of dialogue, mean his interactions - and everyone’s - largely lack meaningful context. Braden’s wife hates the hockey life and thinks she’s better than everyone else but why? She drinks like a rock star and dresses like Super Mario. What’s her story? Reggie’s estranged wife clearly thinks he’s navel lint, but she spends the whole movie lovingly telling him off, and won’t just get out of his life.
What’s up with that? We never find out. The film wants us to be at least semi invested in these people, otherwise their stories wouldn't take up so much of the film. But you can never pin down the motivations of any of them, which too often makes their actions seem random and stupid. And all these wandering subplots combine for a running time of two hours - about 30 minutes longer than a straightforward, R-rated sports movie should be. And that reminds me - don't think just because it was the ‘70s that there won't be some naughty language. Everyone in this dead end town talks the same way you would if the highlight of your night was cheap beer in front of a battered black and white TV with a half congealed can of Dinty Moore for company.
But profanity I can handle. Bring it, Tarantino. What I can't stand is a needlessly confusing story filled with boring characters, all engaged in meaningless relationships. And almost none of it is actually funny. Maybe nobody had ever heard that many F-bombs outside a Scorsese film before. Maybe Paul Newman really was a Free Mason. I have no idea why Slap Shot has the reputation it does. Maybe it's personal taste. Maybe there's a movie called Goon that does a much better job of telling a similar story only it makes sense, has entertaining, well defined characters and oh yeah - is actually funny. Newman smirks and swaggers his way through this role quite well but it feels empty and without purpose. It's a wasted opportunity and I say again that I was lied to.
There was no dumpster sauce. None at all.