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Michael Ontkean

Review: Slap Shot

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Slap Shot has provoked such solemn head-wagging over its failure to take a hard line, one way or the other, on the issue of sports (good, clean, manly, by-the-rules competition) vs. spectator bloodsports (decent American games—hockey in this instance—turned into vicious slugfests to parallel the psychic violence in the stands and in Our Society) that I can only conclude someone has been taking George Roy Hill seriously all these years. Why else start complaining about the absence of anything resembling moral rigorousness or a sense of narrative ethics? Surely not because Butch and Sundance only said “Oh, shit!” when plummeting down the cliffside to the rapids, whereas everyone belonging to or in the neighborhood of the Charlestown Chiefs employs every four-, ten-, and twelve-letter word in the language with the carefree abandon of yapping puppies. So OK, Slap Shot snickers into its own armpit about those crass owners and empty-skulled sportscasters and rummy fans, and then taps the oafish violence on the ice for considerable physical and/or comic exhilaration. In this case I found the moral queasiness easy to ignore, partly because I learned long ago to expect this from Hill, partly because the time to make a federal case of it was back in his more pretentious days—but mostly because Slap Shot is extremely funny, full of rowdy life and business, and irresistibly goodnatured; and you can count on the fingers of one hand all the recent movies of which that could be said, and still have enough fingers left to play cat’s cradle.

The film is particularly interesting as a Paul Newman picture in which the star gets to exercise his penchant for de-glamorizing himself without, for once, turning his performance into a social-consciousness exemplum or an act of self-denigration. The aging player-coach he portrays is a raunchy jock (like almost all his teammates), venal, sexist, not very bright. Newman creates him for what he is, without sermonizing and without denying him his broad, likably evil good humor, his tremendous—if utterly unsophisticated—joie de vivre. The rest of the nonstellar cast matches his vigor and fairness. Michael Ontkean merits special praise as the slightly-smarter-than-his-buddies player with the most acutely developed ambivalence toward the game, and manages to keep the viewer in touch with his mood and movements even when the script treatment of his character vacillates between convenient ellipsis and middling-heavy editorializing. Altman find Allan Nicholls is especially successful at serving up the bounteous scatology with convincing spontaneity and socio-psychological precision (his pained “Fuckin’ embarrassing!” as he listens to some youthful additions to their jaded team giving out with lockerroom gung-ho is priceless), and Brad Sullivan is triumphantly scuzzy as the team’s sex fiend; one expects him to be followed about by a semi-permanent attendant whose responsibility it is to wipe the drool off his nether lip every few minutes, as a token gesture toward public decency.

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