*. Slap Shot is a movie that holds a mythic place in the imagination of any Canadian of a certain age. So much so that I’d always thought it was a Canadian production. It isn’t, though the French-Canadian cast members spoke colloquial Québécois French, which made it an even bigger cult favourite in Quebec than it was among Anglos.
*. The setting though is the fictional New England mill-town of Charlestown (actually Johnstown, Pennsylvania). It’s a hardscrabble, working-class sort of place that would have been familiar to moviegoers at the time. The year before, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Rocky, another sports story set in blue-collar Pennsylvania. There are scenes here that have the same lunch-pail look to them as Rocky. They also recall the streets of Clairmont, Pennsylvania in the 1978 Academy Award Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter. Instead of making it to the big leagues in that movie, the boys went to Vietnam.
*. I don’t think these comparisons are superficial either. I really feel a shared sensibility in all three movies. It’s more than just a kitchen-sink look. And the next year, while Michael Cimino would become Hollywood’s biggest new star with The Deer Hunter, Coming Home would be the other big Vietnam pic. And Nancy Dowd, who wrote Slap Shot, had written the original script for Coming Home. I feel like there are deeper cultural connections here.
*. That might seem a weird thing to say about a movie whose very title suggests slapstick comedy, a sort of Bad News Bears (1976) except with man-boys on ice. And there are parts of it that play like that. Most obviously there are the brutal (and mentally challenged?) Hanson brothers who take blood-and-guts hockey to ridiculous lengths. All without seeming to draw a penalty. But the ending, with Ned (Michael Ontkean) doing his striptease in the midst of a bench-clearing brawl is very much in the slapstick vein. That is, building everything up to a big laugh. You see: all the blood and bad language was just good fun.
*. But the tone throughout is mixed. It’s sad what’s happening to Charlestown, and we feel that the redemption offered by the championship run of the Chiefs is a fantasy that everyone will wake up from the next morning, after the parade, nursing yet another hammering hangover. Same as for Rocky Balboa, except he had a franchise beckoning. Not that the Chiefs didn’t too, but nobody saw any of the other movies in the series, and anyway Paul Newman was gone.
*. Paul Newman really was a good-looking guy. He can even pull off the ’70s threads here with style. Few other men could do that. Or, for that matter, would be able to get away with playing such a loveable heel. Because that’s what Reggie Dunlop is. Ned is the more conventional hero, with a girl-next-door girlfriend who is tragically glamourized at the end.
*. I have to say that despite its following I don’t think Slap Shot is any good. It’s a comedy but never very funny. It seems to be engaged in some kind of social commentary but never aims to be realistic. It’s a sports movie, but has a fanciful notion of minor-league professional sports. Newman enjoyed making it (he liked working with director George Roy Hill, for one thing), but he was one and done. What lasted into the sequels, and still lasts, are the Hanson brothers. This is remembered today as their movie, and fairly so. Newman, however, would get a heck of a consolation prize with his wonderful furry bedmate.