Skating in Two Different Directions: 'Slapshot' Review
If there’s one director I didn’t expect to see on this month’s list of films, it was George Roy Hill, the legendary director of classics such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Then again, he’s got a pretty varied filmography so I guess I’d probably have expected to see Sidney Lumet less than George Roy Hill - but I digress. Director aside, Slapshot is a film that truly embodies the sports movie genre, yet reaches for more than just pulp comedy or inspirational kitsch-fest - an admirable effort that unfortunately hurts the film almost as much as it helps it.
Slapshot, a film with many diverse characters, differing tones, and a multitude of (surprisingly) socially-pertinent themes, is something of a mixed bag. Pitched as, and is, for the most part, a comedy, the film hides some real jewels of wisdom behind all its boisterous on-ice violence. In the small New England town of Charlestown, the local mill is about to lay off 10 000 workers and put the municipality’s frail economy at risk. At the same time, the Charlestown Chiefs, the town’s local minor league hockey team, is facing another no-win season and will most likely end their stint as a team once the mill closes down. The recent popularity of the team's new additions, the Hanson brothers, and their propensity for sparking violence on the ice draws huge crowds to the once humbly attended games. In the midst of such popularity, the depression of the town is consequently, yet only briefly, lifted.
Like I said earlier, Slapshot is a mixed bag - but it’s a very clearly defined mixed bag. In fact, the one thing it highlights most above all of its other themes is the dichotomy it, itself creates by pitting the bashful fun of its violent theater against its own deafening condemnation of that very same gratuitous indulgence. Slapshot is a one-part comedy, and one-part criticism of fragile American infrastructure and mob mentality - unfortunately, the film comes off as anything but an edifying experience. Who would’ve thought that combining a raunchy yet relatively light slapstick (pun intended) comedy with an emotionally weighty message on the dangers of rapid economic change and the sick enjoyment audiences feel when watching men fight in bloody combat wouldn’t meld so well?
It’s not like the film switches tones at the flick of a switch or changes mood and lighting dramatically when discussing different issues, but it’s too obvious that there are two different films at war here and neither one will win, nor will the two work together to make a unique blend of darkly comic. That’s not to say both tones aren’t done well; the comedy side is exceptionally hilarious and the hockey games have a rhythm that supports the fast-paced mayhem that defines the film as something of a cult classic among sports fans. Perhaps it’s because the humor is so well done that the emotionally heavy end of the film feels out of place. Though the film is certainly preaching an important message, and it’s artfully done through its touching character interactions, there’s just too much of a stark contrast between its two very different faces for both sides to succeed. Though I will say that the infrastructure epidemic of the late ‘70s in the US was something I researched afterward as a direct result of the film and the memorable way in which the film discussed the issue is definitely a highlight of the movie.
On the subject of highlights, there’s another, rather famous one in the film - legendary actor Paul Newman. Starring as a player and the Chiefs’ captain, Newman gives an exceptionally nuanced performance. In both comedic elation and disconsolate emotional turmoil, Newman manages the precarious balancing act with expert precision. David Hanson, Steve Carlson, and Jeff Carlson - who star as the Hanson brothers - although not as significant in the film’s off-ice moments are all excellently funny and bring a gritty sort of humor that is unapologetically abrasive yet not tastelessly gratuitous for the sake of it.
Though there is a palpable divide that splits what would otherwise be a fine drama or a hilarious sports comedy, Slapshot is far from disappointing. Both powerfully resonant at times and painfully funny at others, the film’s independent excellences overcome their stark differences from one another. Though the contrast may spoil the viewing experience for some, Slapshot is well worth a shot despite that.