It’s all about the Hanson Brothers. There’s a lot to like in George Roy Hill’s foul-mouthed, irreverent, and playfully violent hockey saga, but nothing in the movie clicks quite as well as the sight of Jack, Jeff, and Steve Hanson—three longhaired brothers wearing Coke-bottle eyeglasses that probably have higher IQ’s than the siblings—working their mojo on the rink. Savages who win by attrition, the Hansons zoom up and down the ice, high-sticking and punching and slashing their competitors until they’ve left a trail of injured opponents in their wake. These bad-boy antics are at the heart of this movie’s rebellious appeal, because even though Slap Shot has an amiable leading character and a tidy storyline, it is above all a lowbrow jamboree of brawling, cussing, and drinking.
Set in a fictional Rust Belt town, the story follows the Charlestown Chiefs, a pitiful minor-league hockey team in the midst of an epic losing streak. Player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) tries to rouse his teammates for some good “old-time hockey”—straight playing without fights—but he knows crowds only get excited for bloodbaths. Meanwhile, team manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) is sending signals that the Chiefs organization might be on the verge of folding.
Over the course of the movie, Reggie—who is desperate to elongate his career, even though he knows it’s long past time for him to stop playing and concentrate on coaching—pulls several underhanded maneuvers. He unleashes the Hansons, whose violence raises the level of game-time brutality while also stimulating attendance; he tricks a local reporter (M. Emmet Walsh) into printing a rumor that the Chiefs might have a new buyer; and he tries to seduce the depressed wife (Lindsay Crouse) of a peacenik player (Michael Ontkean) in order to prod his teammate toward violence. Reggie is a rascal in the classic Newman mold, willing to fracture a few laws in the service of a more-or-less noble goal.
Written by first-time screenwriter Nancy Dowd, whose brother Ned played minor-league hockey, Slap Shot is cheerfully crude, taking cheap shots at bad parents, French-Canadians, gays, lesbians, and other random targets; most of the jokes are funny, but even the ones that aren’t help maintain a genial vibe of frat-house chaos. The picture also drops more F-bombs (and other colorful expletives) than nearly any other ’70s movie. It’s therefore quite a change of pace for the normally genteel George Roy Hill, whose other memorable collaborations with Newman are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). One gets the impression both men had a blast making Slap Shot, since Hill captures the hockey scenes with clever moving-camera shots and Newman elevates the piece with his contagious smiles and entertaining surliness.
While not a critical hit and only a moderate box-office success during its original release, Slap Shot has since attained enviable cult status, even spawning a minor franchise of inferior straight-to-video sequels: Slap Shot 2: Breaking the Ice was released in 2002, and Slap Shot 3: The Junior League followed in 2008. Furthermore, a remake of the original film is rumored to be in the works. Until then, fans can content themselves with Hanson Brothers action figures, which hit stores in 2000.
Slap Shot: GROOVY