Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Slap Shot

This review is dedicated to the NHL, who've yet to settle the 2012 lockout........

The fictional Charleston Chiefs are a losing minor league hockey team led by Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman). They play in an economically depressed town where thousands of jobs will be lost after the local mill shuts down. This does not bode well for the team's future. Even with Reggie's sleazy promotional gimmicks, the Chiefs are going nowhere. Games are sparsely attended.

Inevitably, Reggie learns the franchise will be shut down at the end of the season. In desperate times comes...playing dirty. All-out brawling. The addition of the Coke-bottle bottomed glasses wearing, childlike Hanson brothers trio really ramps up the spectacle. You've all heard the joke: "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out." More and more fans come out to the games, but there aren't many more wins. And just who is the $%&* owner, anyway?

I've loved 1977's hockey comedy-drama SLAP SHOT for many years, always enjoying its unapologetically raunchy dialogue and roughhouse humor. Nancy Dowd's script is gleefully profane and wicked. But not just to cater to the knuckledraggers in the audience who crave such things for their own sake. This isn't just a brain dead locker room epic. The language and behavior are organic to the hard pressed setting, the uncertainty. George Roy Hill, overseer of many great films, commandants the action skillfully yet allows a sometimes improvisational air. And he balances the bone crushing and cussing with some sharp observational humor. It's the sort of rowdy sports film that audiences would hoot and holler along with, like the original THE LONGEST YARD (1974). I was too young to attend the theatrical releases of those pics, but I've heard the stories, read recollections. Wish I @$#% coulda been there!

And SLAP SHOT indeed is well remembered for its plethora of foul language. According to an entry on the IMDB, the "F" word is used in it 55 times. For its time, the screenplay was considered shocking. By today's standards, it's pretty tame. But the years have been kind, and this film is just as hilarious as always. A lowbrow (yet astute) classic. And I can see how the original audiences would've treated it like a live event, a participatory night out. Who says cinema is passive?

Now, I realize that folks whistle and cheer for underdogs in more contemporary films like RUDY and THE BLIND SIDE and countless others. These films warm our hearts and confirm suspicions that sometimes the guy or gal with the odds stacked against them can defy all and emerge victorious. Even if, perhaps especially if, our own lives don't follow that pattern. We seem to have this innate desire/need to root for someone. We want heroes. SLAP SHOT and THE LONGEST YARD, conversely, focus on screw-ups who don't give a damn and are entirely self-centered who may or may not find redemption. In many cases, they're somewhat contemptible. In other words, they're like many of us, those whose lives don't quite resemble that of the hard luck saint or square jawed samaritan.

But today's viewers don't want flawed or contemptible heroes in their sports films (or in real life). It seems lately that the most high profile pro athletes are either entirely hissable (Michael Vick) or angelic (Tim Tebow). What about the poor slobs in between? Earnest, essentially good, or reformed protagonists get the box office receipts, for the most part.

But on the other hand, goofy, labored sports comedies like Will Ferrell's SEMI-PRO do well, because they only require a viewer's brain to be in neutral. SLAP SHOT manages to be sly and intelligent as well as raucous. In this era of the deification of athletes like Tebow (and no offense to the man, my targets are his fans), it's refreshing to watch Everymen, just regular joes, muddle through. And don't worry, they do turn out to have consciences. Just don't expect any congratulatory hugs or majestic scores. In fact, while the finale does involve the expected Big Game, its resolution is most definitely unlike what you would see in say, HOOSIERS (a film I love, btw).

@$#%! I wish someone could make a film like SLAP SHOT today.

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