Cinema: Icing the Puck


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Screenplay by NANCY DOWD

The talk is going to cause most of the talk. There is nothing in the history of movies to compare with Slap Shot for consistent, low-level obscenity of expression. Its producers, besides featuring an R rating more prominently than is customary, are also warning parents that its language is probably too rough for most kids. That's all to the good. Better to be up front about the matter than to apply a censorious pencil to a script that derives considerable power not only from what its characters say but from how they say it—i.e., grossly.

The reason for their locutions is as simple as the speakers: minor-league jocks laboring in a sport that has never been noted for attracting gentlemen—professional hockey. The Charlestown Chiefs represent one of those old, grimily industrialized middle-size Northeastern cities, the kind of place most viewers hear about only when it loses a defense contract. In a desperate attempt to turn his losers into winners, the coach (Paul Newman) converts the team from skaters into brawlers—tank-town versions of the old, notorious Philadelphia Flyers. His tactics are as low as the team's skills in language arts, and just as effective. Slowly one passes from shock to sympathy and laughter. One appreciates as well Director Hill's solid realization of the minor-league ambience—plasticized motels and bars, dreary arenas, the grubby team bus—and the brisk, vivid sketches of recognizable jock types with which he and Screenwriter Dowd* have peopled the Chiefs. Unquestionably, the film makers are at tempting a valid moral statement. Their concern is not merely with the decline of hockey from artful sport into blood spectacle, but also with the general tendency of pop cultural enterprise to go for the vulgar and the sensational, then to avoid responsibility by claiming to give the public what it wants.

Yet for all these considerable merits, the film ultimately disappoints. Its problem is an ending that abruptly transports the audience from heightened realism to broad satire. It is a defect that Slap Shot shares with the current hit Network—a desire to present an editorial so corrosive that aesthetics, questions of form and proportion simply dissolve. The Chiefs win the league championship on a fluke, when their last holdout against the brawling style flips out. Throughout, this out-of-place Ivy Leaguer has been nicely underplayed by Michael Ontkean. But in the denouement he is forced to go for a broader, cheaper kind of comic response, thus vitiating the power of an energetic and original movie that gamely risks, in its more brutal moments, being mistaken for the very sort of thing it is criticizing. Slap Shot may have done a lot of fast skating and some solid body checking, but in the last period it makes a final costly slip—and misses its goal.

Richard Schnickel

* Dowd has a blood connection to professional athletics. Her brother Frank is a minor-league hockey player who served as the film's technical adviser.