The brilliance of Slap Shot, a new movie about a minor league hockey team, lies in its analogies to sport and life. A last-place team is folding in a burned-out city that is itself being abandoned. The violence that contaminates hockey also menaces (and titillates) our whole society. The players' wives, dragged around to strange new cities, classically represent all the displaced housewives of transient America. The hero ( Paul Newman), a washed-up player-coach, is in his athletic dotage. He is spent and rejected, a premature metaphor of what real old age means in this country.
Compared to, say, Rocky, a fairy tale that succeeds because it is never untrue to its premise, Slap Shot is a supposedly realistic view of a sport and of life. But it fails because it is false to everything it fancies itself so realistic about. Alas, it is nothing but a cheap shot.
Violence is at the core of the film, as violence truly is in real hockey. The woebegone Charlestown Chiefs are doomed once the factory is closed and (ugh!) "10,000 workers are placed on waivers." But the team is magically revived because three sadistic brothers are imported from the wilds of Canada to brutalize the opposition and beguile the barbarians in the seats. Sell-outs! First place!
All of this is fair enough, except that we cannot take any of it seriously inasmuch as the very point of the film, the violence, is played strictly for laughs. The burlesque savagery is so in the spirit of the oldtime Tom and Jerry cartoons that I wondered when one of the Chiefs would hand an opponent a large black bomb.
The whirligig direction, by the usually well-disciplined George Roy Hill, runs amok with moments of putative satire wedged amidst heavy slices of life, like putting peppermint patties in a lunch-meat sandwich. The dialogue by Nancy Dowd is as puerile as it is unnecessarily vulgar. Apparently Nancy Dowd believes that male camaraderie can be instantly created with a whole lot of garbage mouth. Well, of course, the —ing broad is correct in her assessment that men in groups employ plenty of dirty words. You bet. But what she apparently fails to realize is that they use them casually, as throw-aways. Slap Shot is utterly betrayed by its language because it makes a point of its dirty words, it smirks at them—and men don't do that; not in the army, not on hockey teams, not in the Watergate tapes, not even, for that matter, in Rocky.
Newman, in what begins as a very affecting scene with the team's female owner, ends up merely aimlessly vile. I would have been embarrassed for Newman, but by this point it was apparent that the role of the old player-coach was lost on him. This is as disappointing as it is confusing, for no leading man has ever made such a graceful transition to character parts as Newman. Yet, as marvelously as he played the foolish, fading Buffalo Bill in his previous film, so did he botch it here.
There is no more pathetic a male figure than the athlete going over the hill. The wan, empty posturing of Joe Namath, almost an overnight has-been, is all we require for available evidence. Slap Shot's player-coach should properly be a lost, fey figure, desperate at the end of the road. That's the way these fellows are. Instead, Newman plays him with the cocky insouciance of a Butch Cassidy, and that is simply not the character. It is a gratuitous performance, as the violence is gratuitous, as the vulgarity is, as even the sex is—five untroubled minutes spent with Newman assessing the not inconsiderable breasts of one Melinda Dillon. For you hockey buffs, the actors skate quite well in the movie. If only they spoke as adequately.