Slap Shot (1977)
The ultimate hockey film, a resounding success as both drama and comedy
13 June 2009
Despite a dismissive response from critics on release, "Slap Shot" has become THE hockey film everyone knows and loves, and it's easy to see why. It's also easy to understand its initial reception. The film is perhaps excessively profane, it doesn't really seem so today but taken in the context of the time one could easily see it as straining for shock value. Paul Newman's least classy role for sure, and George Roy Hill had made some big movies before this one.

Of course there are still plenty of people who accuse this of being vulgar, crass, cartoony trash. The comedy is, sure. But it's also good at being what it is in that regard. Kevin Smith is making a hockey movie about the goon era of hockey based on the Warren Zevon song "Hit Somebody!". If that isn't a rehash of "Slap Shot" I'll eat my hat. The humor is pretty much exactly Smith's style. I expect far more sentimentality from him than "Slap Shot" offers, though. Still, it's GOOD lowbrow humor, with the occasional clever bit that keeps it afloat. Incredibly sharp, memorable dialogue as well.

But what really sets "Slap Shot" apart from most sports flicks to me isn't the comedy, it's the drama. The characters are convincingly-drawn, even the ones which exist purely for comic relief. Nancy Dowd was a good writer and George Roy Hill was a great director. Together they found a perfect balance. Sure, you can watch this movie and laugh and get wasted with your buddies after a hockey game one night, but there's so much more to it. I find it works remarkably well as an examination of the society and community which the sport creates, and which lives around it. The portrayal of marital strife and a town in the midst of economic meltdown is tremendously affecting, the character's relationships and Reggie's story being the film's greatest achievement.

It's also a great examination of hockey, a sophisticated debate over what hockey is or should be. A recent survey found 99.5% of NHL players were in favor of keeping fighting in the game, but that's to the extent that it exists today. How many would want the goon era back? There are still people who 'watch hockey for the fights', "Slap Shot" seems to acknowledge that the goon era reduced hockey to nothing more than a freakshow. The WWE on ice. Don't get me wrong, I'll jump out of my seat with the rest of the crowd if a fight breaks out, but never have cared for hockey as played during the 70's in the US, with violence as the main attraction. The movie does away with the verbal arguments about the nobility of the sport for a comic finale, but even that makes its point quite clear. The very last scene of the film, the ambiguous ending, is even greater.

Great director, great cast, great writing. That's the recipe for a great movie. "Slap Shot" most certainly is one. Gene Siskel's biggest regret as a film critic was giving this a mediocre review on release, as he came to absolutely adore the film on repeat viewings. I think it's easy to mistake this for just another sports comedy, but there's so much more to it, and if you can't see that... well, I feel sorry for you, but to each their own.
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