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Paul Newman in 'Slap Shot.'

Slap Shot March 6, 2023


George Roy Hill



Paul Newman
Strother Martin
Michael Ontkean
Jennifer Warren

Lindsay Crouse






2 Hrs., 2 Mins.


he most striking thing about the sports comedy Slap Shot (1977) is how palpably, dominatingly angry it is. In its fictional main setting, a small town in Pennsylvania called Charleston, nearly everybody is employed by a steel mill and nearly everybody relies on one of very few sports teams, the Charleston Chiefs, as one of its primary sources of entertainment. As the film opens, that steel mill is on the cusp of

shutting down for good and therefore leaving some 10,000 jobless, and that hockey team is in the middle of an extreme losing season. With one of their dependable fonts of relief now gone, Chiefs fans show up to games mostly so that they can noisily jeer. They’ve got to relieve their pent-up frustration somewhere. 


Slap Shot, written by Nancy Dowd and directed by George Roy Hill, doesn’t angle to be the kind of meant-to-be-inspirational turn-this-mess-around sports movie that tends to dominate the genre; this is no story about how this flailing team got their shit together and figured out how to better tap into the skills that got them a place in the minors in the first place. 


Fit for a pissed-off film, Slap Shot is, I’d say pretty unexpectedly considering what the genre has gotten us used to, a movie about a sports team that finds out that violence is the answer. After the audience at one game gets excited when a fight breaks out between the Chiefs and the opposing team’s goalie, player-slash-coach Reggie (Paul Newman) has an idea: What if he and his players leaned more into a seriously aggressive playing style? It might make them more popular; maybe more people would be inclined to check them out if they cultivated the reputation of a wrestling-adjacent slideshow. And maybe it could lead to some more wins, well-deployed on-rink pugnaciousness making up for a lack of real skill.

It actually works. Slap Shot only doubles down on its crass, hardened style of humor — everybody is practically heckling each other all the time, schoolyard insults and serious slurs balls these men play hot potato with — as these characters feel the effects of both climbing victory and a new comfort with being physically hostile basically nonstop. Slap Shot doesn’t feel as deliberately like a comedy as its vinegary spiritual sibling The Bad News Bears (1976); it feels more like an ethnography whose foundational absurdities only inevitably dredge up laughs from time to time. Texturally it feels real; the dynamics between everybody and their shared feelings of claustrophobia feel lived-in. 
There isn’t much of the chemistry you might expect between Newman and his fellow players, though. You assume everybody is going to be like gruff brothers unopposed to wrestling when they get mad at each other when the vibe is generally more like colleagues who don’t mind each other. There’s nothing special there.


But that’s OK, because Newman’s gruff, raw-nerve performance carries the movie — holds our attention. And his chemistry with the principal women characters — the husky-voiced, seen-it-all Jennifer Warren as his hairdresser wife and Lindsay Crouse as the long-suffering spouse of a player who can so be depended to cheat on her that she’ll routinely watch him do it from a distance in public — gives the movie shivers of charge. (There’s also a funny moment in bed with Newman and Melinda Dillon where she relays a sex-fantasy-gone-bad story Reggie will use for underhanded purposes later.) A movie so abrasive and cynical knows better than to have a happy ending, but on the excitingly shot sequences on the ice rink, it feels for once like its characters have some control over their fates. B

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