In the documentary The Last Gladiators, which follows the career of former Montreal Canadiens ˜goon’ Chris Nilan, the film Slap Shot is described as ˜the ultimate ice hockey fight film’ and that’s exactly what it is. Veteran player Reg Dunlop (Paul Newman) coaches the small town team of the Charlestown Chiefs during another disappointing season. Booed by what little fans they have, the team face folding due to the closure of the local mill. It is at their lowest ebb that Reg decides to turn his team into enforcers, or Goons and goes about every game with the aim of causing as much destruction as possible, which inadvertently leads to the team succeeding and slowly rising up the league table.
On the surface Slap Shot seems like your bog standard sports film, with a group of misfits rising above their own flaws to succeed, but there is a surprising amount of social commentary hidden within the narrative. While the staples of the genre can all be ticked off, the relationships behind the scenes tell of a society in a state of change. Reg’s ex-wife for instance talks freely of her bisexuality, while the finale relies as much on the old school views on homosexuality as it does on ice hockey. This raises the impact of the film above its formulaic roots.
The characters, as caricatured as you can get are given a little bit extra to round them off and increase the reality of the situation. Sure there’s the typical sleazebag with a story of sexual promiscuity for every town and city in North America, and there’s the quickly iconic Hanson Brothers, who succeed simply through their love of a scrap, but in the elder statesmen characters like Reg there’s some real pathos on display. It’s impossible not to get behind the team, especially when the actual ice hockey action scenes are so entertaining and the finale has to be seen to be believed.
A cult ice hockey film, not likely known to people who don’t love the sport, but Slap Shot is a strangely deep sports film that still has the capacity to impress years later and forms a wonderful double-bill with the more recent The Last Gladiator documentary.