Old time hockey can be violent, profane, and darned funny!
An absolutely classic sports film, and one of a few to cover hockey, Slap Shot will please just about any sports fan with its humorous, sometimes serious, but dead-on take of minor league hockey and the towns that support it. Thanks to Universal, you may not realize this movie is over 20 years old!
I have to confess up front that hockey is one of my favorite sports to watch as a fan, and last year I had many an enjoyable night at rink-side watching the local minor-league hockey team go at it. By no means is this a prerequisite to enjoying the movie, but if you have any association with hockey, whether as a player or a fan, I think you will have an even better time appreciating this flick.
Slap Shot is the story of the Charlestown Chiefs, a low-rent minor league hockey team that is struggling both in the standings and at the box office, due in part to the financial woes of the local plant, which is itself in danger of closing. As if the astounding fashions on display aren't enough of a clue, this story clearly takes place in the early 1970s when the Rust Belt was beginning to get hit by hard times.
Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is the player/coach of the Chiefs, who eats, sleeps, and breathes old-time hockey but can only suffer as the Chiefs struggle through the season. Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) is a talented, college-educated player and a leading scorer, but who is rather moody about his situation. Many of the team's players are none too happy either, and when General Manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) arranges for them to model at a local fashion show, the results are disastrous (and quite hilarious!). The fans are agitated as well, and profanely tell Reggie and Ned so during a local radio call-in show.
If matters were not bad enough, McGrath saddles Reggie with three of the oddest hockey players you will ever see, the Hanson brothers (Jeff, Steve, and Jack, played by Jeff & Steve Carlson and David Hanson). With their nearly identical shaggy hair, black-framed thick glasses, and penchant for toys, the Hanson brothers look like goofy hockey nerds. Life is not that much better on the home front, with Reggie being separated from his lovely wife, Francine (Jennifer Warren), and Ned having to deal with his depressed and usually drunk wife, Lily (Lindsay Crouse).
When the bad news comes that the team will fold after the season, Reggie is about at his wit's end. In order to hold up his team's morale, Reggie plants a story in the local paper about a rumored buyer for the Chiefs, and then single-handedly ends their losing streak by taunting an opposing team's goalie with some extremely intimate insults! The team does begin to feel happier about their prospects, which leads to the transformation of a normally mild mannered player, Dave "Killer" Carlson (Jerry Houser) into a kamikaze hockey goon. At the same time, Reggie finally gives the Hanson brothers some ice time, where they show themselves to be extremely skilled—at assaulting their opponents! When Reggie notices the crowd going wild at the antics of "Killer" and the Hansons, he knows the secret to the Chief's success.
Going from town to town on a road trip, the Chiefs play a style of hockey that is brutal and quite bloody, and oddly successful, if you don't count the number of stitches or the odd arrest. Ned is disgusted at the new style of play, and his refusal to "goon it up" for Reggie gets him benched, which only infuriates him further. After much determined work, Reggie finally tracks down the owner of the Chiefs in hopes of actually getting the team sold to a real buyer, but his dreams are rudely crushed by the hockey-impaired owner.
Facing the end of his team and his career, Reggie repents of his decision to use pure goon-tactics to win. He reconciles with Ned, and vows to win the Federal League championship with "old time hockey." Their opponents, the Syracuse Bulldogs, aren't so proud, and have called in an all-star roster of thugs and goons to out goon the Chiefs. As soon as the puck is dropped, the Syracuse players bloody the ice and make it clear that "old time hockey" is going to lose out. The Chiefs are depressed, but perk up when McGrath tells them that there are pro scouts sitting in the stands, looking for talent. Before you can say boo, the Chiefs revert back to fighting form, and the whole game degenerates into a boxing match. Refusing to join in, Ned uses an unprecedented exhibition to not only stop the rink-wide fighting, but which leads to a most bizarre end to the game.
With the championship won, Ned and his wife work out their problems and reconcile, and Reggie gets the good news about a new hockey job in Minnesota. The rest of the team may be joining him there too, so everybody is in a celebratory mood as the victory parade winds its way through downtown Charlestown. So, they lived happily ever after (maybe).
It's hard to believe that this movie is over twenty years old, at least by looking at the quality of the video transfer. Either Universal kept very good care of the master, or they did some exceptional work on restoring it to its theatrical glory. Film grain and video noise are remarkable in their near absence, and we are treated to a picture without the assortment of dirt, scratches, and blemishes that are often a part of older movies such as this. Colors are bright and not prone to bleeding, but not as saturated as more modern movies (as is expected). The icing on the cake is that this may be the first time most viewers have seen it in widescreen, and it is an anamorphic transfer too! (Now if only Fox and Buena Vista would be so nice to their catalog titles…)
The audio, being 2-channel mono, is not exactly going to set your home theater on fire. Your surrounds may enjoy the rest, and your subwoofer won't have too much to do either. On some of the music, the bass can be a tad boomy, but the rest of the audio is acceptable for a mono track, including the often troublesome higher frequencies.
With the exception of Paul Newman, most of the cast is a group of relative unknowns, which perhaps is part of its charm. The oddball group of team members play their roles with enthusiasm, and so do the lonely hockey wives. In particular, Paul Newman gives a credible performance as a long-time player who doesn't want to face the end of his career or his marriage, and fights to hold on to both. Jennifer Warren also is excellent in presenting the conflicted emotions of Reggie's wife, whose head tells her to make a final break but whose heart keeps bringing her back. Nothing too spectacular, but then again, nobody drags the movie down, either.
That the story rings so true to the often unglamorous world of minor league hockey (and minor league sports in general) is a definite tribute to Nancy Dowd, a female writer who has managed to capture the spirit of a generally male domain. The story is mostly about hockey, but interwoven are very serious themes about the changing nature of the Rust Belt economy and the difficulties of personal relationships. The comedy is generally quite funny and pleasant, as long as you don't mind a plethora of salty language. Finally, unlike a more modern Hollywood story, the ending is mildly hopeful, but the happiness is tempered by uncertainty, especially as between Reggie and Francine.
Extras are the usual Universal set of production notes, cast and filmmakers' bios, a poor quality full frame theatrical trailer, and web links, as well as the usual basic two-page insert. The preferred Amaray keep case is used for packaging.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I hesitate to complain about a mono track, partly because that's the way the movie was created, and partly because a half-baked 5.1 mix can be worse than a mono mix. So, while I might have liked a better sounding mix, I count this as only a minor complaint.
It wouldn't take Universal a lot of time or effort to put some spice into even a catalog title such as this. How about a featurette, or some information about the game of hockey, or even just menus with some animation and music? On the other hand, Universal is consistent in putting a basic package of features and anamorphic transfers on its discs, so again I won't complain too loudly.
If you're in the mood for a good laugh, or a sports movie, or both, then this is the movie for you! It is a bit dated, but still remains a worthy movie that would fit nicely in any collection, and for a reasonable price ($25) too.
A solid goal with no penalty minutes assessed. Play on!
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