Friday, January 17, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #82 - Slap Shot (1977, dir. George Roy Hill)

Out of all the movies that Paul Newman made, from his debut in The Silver Chalice in 1954 to his final role as narrator of The Meercats, through the blockbuster hits and the award winners and all the good and not-so-good movies in between, his favorite, the one he had the most fun doing, was a foul-mouthed, goofy sports movie: Slap Shot. And it shows. Newman always had an enviable ease and confidence on screen, but in this movie he’s at his coolest, even when he’s getting punched in the face and he’s covered in blood. So if you’re a fan of his, even a casual one, this is a good one to have.
            He plays Reggie "Reg" Dunlop, a former NHL star who’s now player/coach for a fledgling minor league team in a fictional Iron Belt city called Charlestown. The team is bad and the stands are almost empty at their home matches, and when word arrives that the town’s mill will be shuttered the team’s future seems in doubt. With the charm and cunning of a conman, Dunlop manipulates his players into becoming a violent goon squad. The gambit works: they hit a winning streak and start selling out games.
            He gets some help from three new additions to the team: The Hanson Brothers. They’re a trio of strapping, square-jawed, long-haired knuckleheads with black-rimmed, Coke-bottle glasses who’ll pick a fight with anyone who dares skate near them. The long hair and glasses makes them look cool as hell, more like over grown present-day hipsters than knuckle-dragging jocks, and every time they appear on screen they ramp up the movie’s energy. In their debut with the Charlestown Chiefs, they hook, trip, slap, pummel and punch all the other players, and by their third game the official can’t even drop the puck for face-off because of a bench-clearing brawl. In one scene, a fan throws a set of keys into the rink, belts one of the Hanson Brothers in the head, and all three of them leap into the crowd and start pounding on fans indiscriminately. Off the ice, they’re dumb as rocks and unapologetically so—grown men, they travel suitcases full of toy cars.
It all seems over the top and improbable, but much of it’s based on true stories. Nancy Dowd, the screenwriter (who would later win an Academy Award for Coming Home), based the story on the real life adventures of her brother, Ned, who for years played in the minor leagues in the Northeast. Ned makes an appearance in the film as a notorious Syracuse stickman, Ogie Ogilthorpe, and many of the other characters are played by real hockey players, including the Hanson Brothers, played by actual hockey-playing brothers. Legend has it that this is partly why Newman loved the role so much—a fan of the game, he had a blast hanging around with low-ranking hockey players and getting a feel for the life. And this gives the movie a feel of genuineness that makes it a blast to watch.
- Joe Miller

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