Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why Slap Shot is My Favorite Sports Movie

The sports film might be the most cliched cinematic genre of them all, one where a one typically sees a rag-tag underdog team or unlikely athlete find a way to win against improbable odds, eventually triumphing in the big game that ends the film.  Several great films have been made within this straight-jacket, but I really appreciate those that play with the formula, or junk it altogether.  My favorite baseball movie, Bull Durham, rises above the rest by not following this convention at all, since the film ends with a romance rather than a championship.

As much as I love that movie, it pales in comparison to that other great film about minor league sports: Slap Shot.  There are many reasons to love it, from the great cast (especially Paul Newman and Strother Martin), hilarious jokes, realistic on-ice action, and a generally high level of profane irreverence.  The plot is fairly basic.  A minor-league hockey team in a dying steel town tries to distinguish itself in the hopes of being bought and relocated so the players can keep their jobs.  An old and younger player clash with each other, but eventually the team comes together and wins the big game.  On the surface, it sounds like just another sports flick, but in reality it is so much more.

Unlike many other sports films, there's a constant sense of realism and utter lack of fantasy.  The players are concerned about their livelihoods after their sporting careers are over, their spouses are bored and desperate, the Charlestown Chiefs have to promote blood-thirstiness to get fans in the seats, their announcer wears a garish toupee, and the team is to be folded because the Rust Belt economy of its city can no longer support it.  In their off hours the players drink beers in dive bars and have to perform humiliating promotions for the team.  The players are less golden gods of athletic prowess than working stiffs worried about their ability to make it in tough times.

It's easy to miss that social realism in the game scenes, which are probably the funniest ever committed to celluloid.  Much of the comic relief comes from the Hanson brothers, three bespectacled goons who make up in sheer terror what they lack in the fundamentals of hockey.  The scene when they first hit the ice is physical comedy at its best.

What I love most, however, is that Slap Shot comments very critically on masculinity and violence in between the funny moments.  The player-manager of the team, Reg Dunlop, decides to follow the Hanson brothers' lead and build a team based on fighting and violence.  The formerly mild-mannered Dave Carlson gets in on the act, getting the nickname "killer" and wearing a Dracula cape.  This disgusts the young star of the team, Ned Braden, who gets benched for his refusal to fight.  This resistance to Dunlop's brand of hockey (along with his apparent disinterest in his wife) leads his teammates to question his masculinity (and even sexuality).  Braden is constantly told that he is not a "real man" because he does not fight.  Throughout the film, the players engage in homophobic insults and seem constantly anxious about their masculinity.

The implied critique of macho culture and the way it saturates the locker room gets full blown at the very end, when the Charlestown Chiefs do indeed make it to "the big game."  Their opponents respond to the Chief's violent ways by creating an entire line-up of infamous goons, and the championship game soon devolves into an ugly brawl, which Braden refuses to participate in.  He then goes out onto the ice and performs a strip-tease amidst the fighting, an action that the announcer finds to be disgusting, rather than the bloodshed on the ice, which he praises.  Once Braden strips down, the ref ends the game and gives the title to the Chiefs, in what has to be the most unconventional "big game" ending in sports movie history.

The whole thing is pretty damn funny, but it also asks tough questions about what kind of society associates manhood with violence and brutality.  In the thirty-five years since this film came out, despite all the complaints about sensitivity training and political correctness, I think that the masculine ideal that most young men are raised to emulate is just as ugly and harmful as it was back then.