Northern exposures

Polite Canadian myths shattered

Published: Apr 29 2015, 01:01:am

Friday, March 25, 1977
SLAP SHOT. Written by Nancy Dowd. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Directed by George Roy Hill. Running time: 123 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: violence and coarse language.
RICK  DILLON IS DEAD. An aging adolescent, Dillon was the title character in Peter Pearson's memorable 1973 movie, Paperback Hero.
    As played by Keir Dullea, the self-styled ''Marshal'' Dillon was the big gun on a bush league hockey team. When his team folded, Dillon's world collapsed.
    The ''Marshal" flipped out, provoked a shootout with the local RCMP sergeant and went out in a blaze of glory on the main street of Delise, Saskatchwan.
    Dillon may be gone, but he's not been forgotten. The character, created by screenwriters Les Rose and Barry Pearson, was so striking that you had to wonder: What if  . . .
    What if Dillon had survived Delise? What if he had made if from semi-pro to minor-pro? What if his world were to start crumbling yet again?
    In Slap Shot, director George Roy Hill's sensational new shinney saga, screenwriter Nancy Dowd resurrects Rick Dillon in the character of Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), player-coach of the Charlestown Chiefs, losingest team in the Federal League.
    Dunlop's troubles are a lot like Dillon's. For one thing, his team Is folding.
    Times are tough, and the local steel mill is shutting down. With attendance falling off, the Chiefs' owner would rather have a tax write-off than a hockey club.
    For another thing, Dunlop's personal life is a shambles. Though separated from his wife, a hairdresser named Francine (Jennifer Warren), he is still attracted to her.
    On the other hand, he is attracted to most women. His current project is Lily Braden (Lindsay Crouse), the pretty, emotionally troubled young wife of one of his own players.
    Like Dillon, Dunlop decides to bully his way out. Rather than accept the end, he starts the rumour that ''there's a senior citizens community in the South'' negotiating to buy the Chiefs. He leaks the story to friendly sports writer Dickie Dunn (M. Emmet Walsh) in the hope that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    To make the team attractive to potential buyers, it  has to be a winner.  To be a winner, Dunlop reasons, it has to become aggressive; nay, violent!
    It's possible that screenwriter Dowd never saw Paperback  Hero. There's no doubt, though, that she has seen a lot of hockey. Her brother, Ned (who has a small role in the film), played two seasons with the Johnstown Jets.
    A former documentary filmmaker, Dowd has an approach-avoidance reaction to Canada's national pastime. The result is a film that seems to want it both ways — a high-spirited burlesque equipped with a meaningful statement.
    Her Slap Shot script cheerfully loads contradiction upon contradiction. Here is tough locker-room humour written by a young woman. Here is an essentially Canadian story that is played out in the United States. Indeed, Dunlop (who has a large Maple Leaf flag in his bedroom) has only one American on his team.
    That American is Ned Braden, an unscarred, desultory college graduate who resists Dunlop's ''winning" ways. Braden refuses to fight. "We win because I score goals," he snarls.
    "We win," Dunlop snarls back, "because I make 'em crazy!"
    Players, fans, even the radio play-by-play announcer have all responded to Dunlop's combination of psych and hype. But not Ned. No, sir.
    There is an underlying irony in the fact that the gentlemanly Braden is played by a Canadian — Vancouver-born actor (and one-time semi-professional hockey player) Michael Ontkean.
    Sorting it all out is George Roy Hill, a veteran filmmaker who doesn't just enjoy contradictions but revels in them. The director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and the Oscar-winning The Sting (1973), Hill loves to put his audience on, push a joke to its limit and then share it with us.
    Slap Shot is a special joke that he shares with the Canadian audience. His mood, perfectly reflected in Newman's bemused, cunning, ultimately beguiling performance, is one of artful mayhem.
    Hill wins us over the moment the curtains part. There, staring out at the audience, is TV interviewer Jim Carr (Andrew  Duncan) and his guest, Chiefs goaltender Denis Lemieux (Yvon Barette).
    Scruffy little Lemieux is about as comfortable in front of a TV camera — in full uniform, of course — as he is in the English language. Nonetheless, he manages a marvelously deadpan recitation of all the infractions for which a player can be sent to the penalty box ''to feel shame."
    An audience in a good mood is willing to accept a lot more from a film. Hill takes advantage of his initial goodwill to sell us a story that moves swiftly from the merely improbable to the totally surreal. Along the way he suggests that hockey players and their fans probably share a median IQ of about 67.
    They are happy morons, though, for this is, at heart, a happy film. Throughout, Hill is shuffling shells, preparing us for his final surprise, Slap Shot's own parting sting.
    This is a message movie, remember. Its message probably has to do with sportsmanship. Dunlop says it when he admits that ''Ned was right. Violence is killing this sport."
    Are we all agreed?
    Don't bet money on it. Slap Shot is to professional sports as 1976's Network was to broadcasting. Paddy Chayefsky's message then was "it's all show business, even the news."
    Hill and Dowd want us to know now that "it's all show business, even the fights.''
    Show business is what it's about, and show business it is.
    Like Network, it's a big winner. Slap Shot shoots and scores.
*    *    *
NOW YOU KNOW: Not everybody at Universal Pictures knows hockey the way Canadians know hockey. In a press release, issued on January 21 [1977], the studio offers this explanation for the film's title:
    ''A 'slap shot' is the most powerful — and most brutal — shot in ice hockey, with the puck sometimes achieving speeds estimated at 130 miles per hour."
    Well, OK. That's a useful bit of knowledge, to be sure.
    Except, I don't recall anyone in the movie actually using a slap shot.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1977. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Michael Ontkean, an actor who needed no stunt double in Slap Shot, does not lack courage. In 1981, he took on a role that several better-known stars had turned down out of fear for their careers. Director Arthur Hiller's domestic drama Making Love is credited with being the first mainstream Hollywood film to deal head-on with issues of homosexuality, coming out and what would come to be known as gay marriage. Ontkean played the husband who divorces his wife to live with another man. On this Canadian Film Day, though, we should remember some of his all-Canadian roles. One of my favourites is his performance in the absolutely first-rate Bye Bye Blues, Anne Wheeler's1989 Second World War homefront drama, where he play's a Canadian army doctor interned in a Japanese prison camp. Another is his turn in the unintentionally hilarious Cold Front (1990), where he plays an RCMP officer paired with an American DEA investigator in what has to be an alternate-universe Vancouver.
    Slap Shot was one of those pictures that went over the heads of many American critics. Audiences were better attuned to its charms, and the film's reputation has actually improved over the years, with Entertainment Weekly including it on its 2003 list of "The Top 50 Cult Films." It was enough of a boxoffice success to generate talk of a sequel, though that was a long time coming. In 2002, the Hanson brothers (Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson and David Hanson) were reunited in the direct-to-video Slap Shot 2: Breaking the Ice (2002). They were back again in 2008 for Slap Shot 3: The Junior League (2008).