Weekend Film Recommendation: Slap Shot

George Roy Hill and Paul Newman scored two mega-hit, crowd pleasing films with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting (Recommended by Johann Koehler here). When they reunited in 1977, the commercial temptation would have been to more or less repeat themselves. Being highly creative artists, they instead challenged many of their fans’ expectations by making a foul-mouthed, violent, raunchy comedy set during America’s dreary blue collar decline: 1977’s Slap Shot.

Some (though not all) viewers were appalled. But, with critic Gene Siskel being the most well-known example, reactions to Slap Shot have warmed over time to the point that it is today justly regarded as a classic American movie.

The plot: The Chiefs are a minor league hockey team who lose more than they win under aging player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman). Meanwhile, the local plant is closing, leading the team’s owner (Strother Martin) to shop the franchise around. His career and marriage on the rocks, Dunlop knows he needs to gin up some victories and some interest for the team. The answer comes in the form of the Hanson brothers, who lead the team into a new style of hockey: Beating the crap out of their opponents! The dirty play pays off as The Chiefs start to win and the fans begin to rally around them. Meanwhile, there is lots of 1970s bed-hopping and retrograde attitudes under threat.

Some may be surprised that the script was written by a woman. But Nancy Dowd, whose brother was a minor league hockey player, knows her way around the game and also around people who use language that would make a sailor’s parrot blush. Hockey fans love the authenticity of the film, not least that Michael Ontkean (As a clean-cut Princeton grad who is the star of The Chiefs and disapproves of dirty play) and many of the other performers were in fact excellent hockey players. The resulting film is funny, rude, politically incorrect and a jolly good time. Having lived myself though the 1970s de-industrialization of Western Pennsylvania and seen all the leather suits, huge shirt collars, towering heels and other fashion horrors I can vouch for this film’s accuracy about life at the time.

Newman, in a role that was a stretch for him (he apparently rarely even swore in private life), gives a very appealing comic performance as an over-the-hill jock. He also has great byplay with his frequent co-star Strother Martin and with Jennifer Warren as his ex-wife. Andrew Duncan is hilarious as a radio announcer with hair from hell. Lindsay Crouse, as Ontkean’s binge drinking wife, delivers a one-note and eventually tedious performance, but all of the other smaller parts are well-turned by the actors.

Last but not least, the scenes of the hockey games are very well done. Everyone can skate and the crushing impacts and high-velocity shots feel real.

Slap Shot will never be shown at a church social or at a gathering of anti-violence activists. As long as that doesn’t put you off, get ready to laugh and be enormously entertained.

p.s. Some fun trivia: can you name ALL the films that Newman and Martin were in together? Martin’s Wikipedia entry claims six such pairings, but I could only come up with five so I am either forgetting one or *gasp* Wikipedia is wrong about something.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Slap Shot”

  1. The Silver Chalice, Harper, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Pocket Money, and Slap Shot

  2. Chris appears to be correct. Strother Martin had an uncredited appearance in The Silver Chalice, a movie that should be entirely forgotten.

    1. I have heard of The Silver Chalice only because Newman famously took out ads in the Hollywood papers saying how crappy it was and asking people not to go see it. I have not seen it and did not realize Strther Martin was in it. I have learnt from this to never, ever, ever question Wikipedia.

    2. Paul Newman, Natalie Wood, Jack Palance, Virginia Mayo, Pier Angeli, Lorne Greene, E.G. Marshall … nominated for two Academy Awards (Cinematography, Music)

      It may have been a stinker, but if so it was certainly a heavy-weight stinker.

  3. I’m a huge hockey fan and attended every NCAA men’s Frozen Four from 1989 (before they’d come up with the phrase ‘Frozen Four’) until 2009. It was a tradition that a whole bunch of people would gather in a friend’s hotel room on the off night between the semi-finals and the final and watch Slap Shot. Hockey fans treat it the way that nerds treat Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Hanson brothers have spent the rest of their lives making money off of it, including at least one dreadful sequel. (I’m scared to use Google to find out if there’s been another.)

    So, while I enjoyed the movie the first few times I watched it, it’s been beaten to death for me. I highly recommend watching it three or four times but after that, just stick with youtube clips of the best moments.

    And everyone should know what icing is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGKdle1bbvo

    1. Wow. You must have seen my alma mater, Michigan State, play many times. In my four years there, they dominated play but I only went once to a game, in my senior year. I said to my friend, who had been given the tickets, “I am here mainly just to see a fight”. And within 10 minutes one of the biggest brawls of the year broke out, with Ohio State.

      1. I grew up in Ann Arbor and my family had season tickets to UofM hockey, so I saw State play a lot. Not sure when you went there but my guess is that it was the mid-to-late 1980s. State won the national title in 1986, which is the year before I left for Minnesota and thus before we went to the Frozen Four. The next year I went to my first Frozen Four game, to watch State play the Gophers in the semifinal. Sparty won on my first experience with the zamboni doors at Joe Louis Arena; Tom Chorske sent a clearing attempt around the boards behind our net and it popped right out into the slot onto a State stick for the game winner. It didn’t bother me too badly since the two teams were playing for the right to get smoked by the North Dakota Hrkac Circus, still the best men’s college hockey team I’ve ever seen, the next night.

        For a long time, that was the highlight of State in the NCAA tournament. They lost in the semis in 1989 and again in 1992. It was 2007 before the won the title again with what even I had to admit was a very entertaining team, albeit one that was at its best the first time they played a team because of the freakish forecheck they played.

        1. Ron Mason was the coach during my time at State (Graduated in 1988), and they racked up some incredible win streaks under him and I clearly did not appreciate it at the time. Munn Ice Arena was next to my dorm but I only went inside twice, for the brawl game with Ohio State and for my graduation, at which the speaker was Rev Jesse Jackson.

  4. It’s always been high on my list of “guilty pleasures”. Vulgar, violent, and dead-on-target hilarious.

Comments are closed.