Classic Film Review: Is “Slap Shot (1977)” still “The Greatest Sports Movie” of them all?

It’s been accepted wisdom for much of my adult life that “Slap Shot” is “the greatest sports movie of all time.”

A rude, bloody and irreverent 1970s story of minor league hockey, it was the last time director George Roy Hill teamed up with his on-screen alter ego, Paul Newman. As their other two collaborations were “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting,” this sports comedy is in good company.

Hill made “A Little Romance” and took a shot at “Slaughterhouse Five” and “The World According to Garp,” so if he’s “underrated” among that era’s top directors, it’s not because he wasn’t trying.

“Slap Shot,” which I hadn’t seen in years — my first exposure to it was when I was projectionist for a screening at the huge, carbon-arc/16mm projector auditorium at my undergrad school — remains a great snap shot of late ’70s American “malaise.” It’s set in fictional Rust Belt Charlestown in the heart of hockey country. Smoke stacks fill the (Johnstown, Pa.) skyline, Old Style signs decorate the bars.

And the Charlestown Chiefs are the only pro game in town, a Federal League team that’s seen better days. Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, the grey-haired player-coach of a losing team, a seen-it-all skater transitioning to “the front office,” his general manager (Strother Martin) assures him.

But the young-yet-jaded “star” of the team, Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) is the one who sees the writing on the wall. When word gets out that “the mill is closing,” the Chiefs are not long for this world.

Reg is slow to catch on, missing the GM’s phone chats about selling this or that — the team bus, for instance. Braden and a couple of others may have slim hopes of getting called up to the NHL. But for most, in a down economy, even blue collar job options seem delusion.

“Back to the f—–g Chrysler plant!”

The womanizing Reg — Jennifer Warren plays his big-haired hairdresser wife, the one he can’t let himself divorce — comes up with a plan. He plants a rumor (M. Emmett Walsh plays the local sports columnist) that “some retirement community in Florida” wants the team. All it’ll take is a winning streak, a spike in attendance and finding out who actually owns this damned team, and maybe that rumor will come true.

Avid fans of “Slap Shot” know what’s coming, what to wait for in the story. It’s the arrival of The Hansons, three dopey, bespectacled arrested-development Canadian brothers (Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson and David Hanson) who join the club, cheerlead from the bench and slotcar race in their hotel room.

“I wonder if they show ‘Speed Racer’ here?”

They tape aluminum foil onto their fists and patiently wait for coach to stop saying “These guys are RE—ds!” and give them them the “OK guys, show us what you got.”

Turns out, they’re just the goons this team was looking for. Brawls, cheap shots, penalties and wins follow, with only Braden resisting this sudden change in their fortunes.

“I’m not gonna ‘goon it up’ for you.”

I never realized this was the debut of screenwriter Nancy Dowd, who scripted “Coming Home,” “Swing Shift” and the Richard Dreyfuss horse track comedy “Let It Ride” over the course of a career in which she was often uncredited for her rewrites “(Ordinary People”) or wrote under a male nom de plume (“Let It Ride”).

The nom de plume thing becomes more understandable when you dive into the films. You can’t just blame the boys-will-be-boys director for something you can see in a lot of her scripts. Dowd had a gift for reducing women characters to “types.” The sexism of “Slap Shot,” with the ex who won’t hear of a reconciliation, the “I’ve been sleeping with women” side piece wife (Melinda Dillon, of “Close Encounters,” “Christmas Story” and Newman’s “Absence of Malice”) of an opponent, the smart, crusty and not-as-tough-as-she-looks spouse (Lindsay Crouse, who would marry pre-fame playwright/screenwriter David Mamet later that year) Braden dismisses. Dowd wrote interesting female characters, but had a real gift for women who didn’t measure up to the male ones.

“Slap Shot” proved so tempting to imitate that you can see pieces of it in decades of sports comedies to follow — “Major League,” “Bull Durham,” “Semi Pro,” “The Replacements.” There’s even a whiff of it in the whole owner/coach dynamic of “Ted Lasso.”

But what smacks you right in the face watching this beloved, overlong and uneven picture now are how it reliant it is on slurs for laughs.

Sure, it was a different era. And at least, with its hockey milieu and all-white Rust Belt towns settings, they aren’t racial slurs. It took a long time for most of America to abandon the homophobic and mentally-challenged language that this film pounds away at. I always take into account that my hero James Garner’s Jim Rockford drops the “f-slur” in the pilot of his 1970s TV series when considering “how far we’ve come” in such instances.

But Hill & Co. RELY on these phrases for more of the film’s humor than most of us remember. Sure, there’s a goofy small-city TV interview-with-the-French Canadian goalie (Yvon Barrette) to kick things off. Mooning fans of opposing teams from the windows of the team bus is a timeless laugh. And the damned Hanson Brothers are a hoot in every way and in every scene.

A referee threatens/warns the Hansons about what won’t be tolerated, but makes the mistake of doing it during the national anthem.

“I’m listening to the f—–g song!

Much of the humor is shock-value profanity. We’d never heard Paul Newman talk like this in a movie, and it could be bracing and hilarious.

Other laughs come from Reggie’s play-the-angles manipulations, and the Godawful plaids and brown-leather leisure suits fashions on display. Probably not as funny back then? Sure.

But strip away the slurs and a lot what you/we have laughed at in this comedy over the decades is gone.

And watching it now, the clunkiness of the plot and the meandering story-telling style are thrown into sharper relief. It was hard to chase guys (or have them chase the camera) on the ice when the 35mm cameras weighed that much. There’s one dazzling bit of skating/fight choreography early on, and everything that follows seems geared to hiding just how fast — or slow — the cast (most of them) were on skates.

Crouse would go on to work with Newman again (“The Verdict”) and star in the films of her then husband (“House of Games”). Dillon would make a bigger mark in the films she made following “Slap Shot,” ones in which she was allowed to keep her shirt on. Walsh became one of the most beloved character curmudgeons of the cinema, and Paul Dooley — as a manic play-by-play man calling an on-ice/in-the-stands fight — was immortalized in “Breaking Away” and “Popeye.”

I became a bigger hockey fan after seeing “Slap Shot,” and going to a college hockey power for grad school, I became a lot more discriminating about the action and how games were depicted. Frankly, “Cutting Edge” and other later films had better skating (and editing). For me, the all-time best hockey movie is “Miracle.”

And I’m still waiting for something to surpass “Bull Durham” as the savviest, silliest and most gloriously sentimental sports movie of them all. Real-life jock turned director Ron Shelton, and Costner, Robbins, Sarandon & Co. managed a lot more laughs than “Slap Shot” with nary a “fa—t” or “re—d.”

That film is aging pretty well. But the more time passes, the more this “Slap Shot” seems wide of the net.

Rating: R, violence, nudity, profanity, homophobic slurs

Cast: Paul Newman, Michael Ontkean, Lindsay Crouse, Strother Martin, Jennifer Warren, Jerry Houser, Brad Sullivan and Melinda Dillon.

Credits: Directed by George Roy Hill, scripted by Nancy Dowd. Now on Amazon, Tubi, etc.

Running time: 2:03

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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