"Slap Shot," opening today at the K-B Fine Arts, reunites Paul Newman and George Roy Hill, the star-director team of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting," in a vulgar, rowdy, mixed-up commercial entertainment.
This tendentious comic fable about the comeback of a failing minor-league hockey team under the desperately mischievous leadership of Newman, cast as an aging player-coach called Reggie Dunlop, finds the star in clever, winning form while the director seems to be running a deliriously hypocritical fever.
"Slap Shot" comes at you like a boisterous drunk. At first glance it appears harmlessly funny, in an extravagantly foul-mouthed sort of way. However, there's a mean streak beneath the cartoon surface tha makes one feel uneasy about humoring this particular durnk for too long.
Hill has tried to combine a crowd pleasing style of profane, slapstick sporting humor, reminiscent of the approaches that proved popular in such movies as Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" Robert Aldrich's "The Longest Yard" and Michael Ritchie's opportunistic, ineffective gestures of social criticism, perhaps inspired by Altman's "Nashville." Although the gags and digs tend to be equally gratuitous, Hill is vastly more proficient at the former.
Luckily for the filmmakers, audiences may decline to equate themselves with the hockey fans shown clamoring for brawis and buffoonery. Alternately closnish and snobbish, a gut and turning on us for being sus-"Slap Shot" keeps inviting us to bust ceptible to the invitation.
Despite a record of success in his profession that would seem enviable to most people, George Riy Hill may crave a kind of "serious" recognition that has eluded him. Strange as it seems, the popularity of films like "Butch Cassidy" and "The Sting" may not compensate for the failure of films like "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "The Great Waldo Pepper," which Hill might have considered more personal and audacious projects.
There's strain of discontent in the movie that seems unwarranted and damaging. It's as if Hill couldn't suppress his resentment at giving public what he presumes it wants.
Shot largely on location in Johnstown, Pa., "Slap Shot" is an episodic account of the last season of the Charlestown Chiefs, a mediocre club which begins to win games and revive fan interest after adopting a pugnacious, bullying style of play. The transformation is improvised by Dunlop, who realizes that he has nothing to lose, since the management has decided to fold the franchise. Dissembling on two fronts, Dunlop provokes situations that turn the Chiefs' games into rabble-rousing free-for-alls and plants a rumor that the team may be mvoed to Florida with a bullible sports reporter.
Like their protagonist, Hill and screenwriter Nancy Dowd, whose brother Ned played minor-legue hockey with the johnstown Jets, try to engineer a con, but their motives and techniques are less respectable. Dunlop's antics may make a mockery out of the games, but there's an admirable side to his deviousness: Dunlop is scheming to save the jobs of his players as well as his own job.
Newman makes DUnlop such a transparent, ingratiating deceiver, a battered, puzzled but indomitably zesful and resourceful jocks, that it's impossible to resent most of his subterfuges. The filmmakers exploit Dunlop far more questionably than he exploits the Chiefs and their followers, because they attempt to stretch the club's preposterously depicted success story into a would-be devastating sociaal parable.
Dowd's writing demonstrates certain elastic properties, but it can't be stretched to encompass a cherent or persuasive point of view.It's astonishing that the film keeps going on zany blackouts and profane zingers, but it somehow does. The filmmakers can't conceal the fact that they haven't sustained a single plot thread of relationship, yet they charge "Slap Shot" with aggressive energy.
One can detect sharper sources of conflict in the way the filmmakers treat the story and characters that in the way the characters treat each other. Initially we're led to believe that the Chiefs are folding because layoffs at the town's steel mill will inevitably kill the box office. The dubious assumption is forgotten later on. The team becomes an outrageous success, but the apathetic owner, a divosrcee played by Kathryn Walker, informs Dunlop that she's closing shop for tax purposes, on the advice of her financial advisors.
THis remarkably ugly scene is orchestrated for insult. The owner patronizes Dunlop, who retaliates with a vicious parting shot, the most obsence remark in a script that goes out of its way to sound indiscreet. Dunlop returns to the locker room to grumble, "We were never anything but a rich broad's tax reite-off." Why weren't the hapless Chiefs a satisfactory tax write-off? Could Dunlop have messed up by turning them into a hit? If so, why wasn't this potential irony worked imto the plot?
In a similar respect, presumably key relaionships remain unexplored. You expect scenes that will clarify the apparent conflict, between Michael Ontkean, cast as the team's smart star player, Ned Braden, and Lindsay Crouse, who plays his discontented wife. They never materialize. neither do the scenes that should develop the relationship between Dunlop and Braden, who sees through the coach's schemes from the start and refuses to play along. Even the fact that Mrs. Braden moves in with Dunlop seems inconsequential.
Dowd's writing has a peculiarly nebulous quality: It sound brassy but leaves no reverberations. Ultimately, the film seems so shallow that one can't even be certain what Braden's climactic beau geste, a striptease on the ice, is supposed o signify. If may be a gesture of ironic contempt or a gesture of ironic contempt or a gesture of whimsical resignation. For reasons that remain bafflibg, it appears to patch up his marriage.
"Slap Shot" is a joyride conducted by drivers who betray an undercurrent of hostility toward their passengers. The profanity expresses more that documentary fidelity to the vocabulary of jocks. It's an aggresive outlet for the filmmakers, too. Once you hop on, it's advisable to concentrate on the gratuitously funny aspects of the ride and to avoid taking the hostility personally.
People are more likely to be upset by the movie's dialogue sthan its split personality. Even Newman's witty acting may suffer from the fact that it's embedded in a deliberately offensive context. Newman is literally a diamond in the rough, and it requires a certain forebearance to separate his quality from the surrounding raunch.
The ultimate weakness of the film is that it's claculated to be a self-fulfilling cynical prophecy: Box-office success can be taken as justification of the assumption that moviegoers only want to play dirty. Well, not necessarily; it all depends. It is unreasonable to expect the public to feel guilty because Hill and Dowd insist on alternately stroking and slapping the hands that feed them.