Monday, August 23, 2010

Slap Shot

It would be an exaggeration for me to claim that I am a big hockey fan.  And by an "exaggeration," I of course mean an "outright lie."  I don't watch hockey.  I don't know the rules or even most of the professional teams.  The last time I can remember watching hockey was when I last saw The Mighty Ducks --- no, wait, make that Van Damme's Sudden Death.  Obviously, it takes roundhouse kicks to the face and/or the least successful Sheen to convince me to watch a hockey movie.  "But Brian, Slap Shot is really funny!"  Who cares?  It's not like I need any help ridiculing Canada.  Do you know how they named their country?  Well, they started with a C, eh? and an N, eh? and a D, eh?  Oh, so consistently crack me up.

Actually, it turns out that my imaginary protesting voice is right; this might be the hockey movie, but it is also a movie that hockey ignoramuses can easily enjoy.  Slap Shot tells the tale of the a minor league hockey team, the Charlestown Chiefs.  Led by player/manager Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), the team is a frequent loser.  Their only bright spot is Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), a graceful player, although he is criticized for not being aggressive enough.  When the local mill closes down, attendance takes a dive; the team eventually learns that the franchise is going to be disbanded after the season.  Dejected, the Chiefs start to play even worse than before.  Reggie has spent his whole life playing hockey, and managing a terrible team won't get him another managerial job, so he has to think fast.  Why not, he reasons, start a rumor that the team will be sold, not disbanded, after the season to a city in Florida?  Reggie doesn't know who the Chiefs' owner is (and he's tried to find out), so who is going to prove him wrong?  The idea of moving to Florida appeals to the team's players, and their attitudes rapidly improve.  They're still not very good, though.

Enter the Hanson brothers.  The team's general manager (Strother Martin) makes a trade one day and ends up with three young kids with long, blonde hair and an annoying hit single and the ladies (and pedophiles) couldn't get enough --- whoops.  Wrong Hansons.  These Hansons were three young simpletons with coke bottle glasses, loud voices and short attention spans.  Reggie refuses to play them because they are idiots.  Fair enough, I suppose, but this is back when only goalies wore helmets, so this isn't exactly a sport for geniuses.  Eventually, a game gets so bad that Reggie puts the three in to see what they can do.  As it turns out, they can beat the snot out of everyone on the ice.  It doesn't matter if you're by the puck or if you're the referee, you're going down when these guys take the ice.  The three played only a few minutes before being ejected, but the crowd went wild.  Reggie takes note and starts egging his other players on to act more like the Hansons.  The Chiefs start to win and their fans start to take notice.  At what point, though, does playing rough stop being hockey and start being a brawl with nets?

The direction of George Roy Hill is entirely responsible for why this movie works.  The cast is full of professional hockey players, not actors.  Aside from Newman, there are few recognizable actors, just a few occasional television bit players, M. Emmet Walsh, and Brad Sullivan.  And yet, the movie doesn't suffer from a lack of polished acting.  The players basically just play and mispronounce things, eh?  It helps that there are only two characters in the movie, Reggie Dunlop and Ned Braden, and their relationship is a microcosm of the film's primary conflict.  And then there are the Hanson brothers.  If you haven't seen this movie, but have heard hockey fans talking about it, you have heard about the Hansons.  Telling you that they knocked this one guy really hard when he wasn't looking doesn't do them justice.  They're dirty players and the things they do are so obviously wrong, you can't help but laugh.  Their dialogue and delivery are in line with their tough play, just as easy to laugh at and just as difficult to describe.  Let's just say that they're funny.

While the Hanson brothers are what make this movie memorable, Paul Newman's performance is what gives it a semblance of substance.  This isn't the Newman I'm used to seeing in movies, either; he is sneaky, manipulative, and an unrepentant womanizer.  In other words, he's a jerk.  He's still likable (he is Paul Newman, after all), but that edge gives the movie a cynical dark side that most sports movies avoid.

It's too bad that other sports movies haven't followed Slap Shot's style over the years.  Most sports movies are formulaic and a little cheesy.  I like having the main characters be a little bad.  It adds some spice to the story and throws their inevitable victory at the end into question.  This is a film that stands out among sports movies for playing dirty and being rewarded for it --- oh, and those Hansons are pretty awesome, eh?

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