Riot On Ice: Paul Newman in SLAP SHOT (Universal 1977)

Hockey fans are excited about this year’s Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, so I figured now’s the time to take a look at the quintessential hockey movie, George Roy Hill’s SLAP SHOT. Hill and star Paul Newman, who’d previously collaborated on BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, reunited for this raucous, raunchy sports comedy about a failing minor league hockey team who reinvent themselves as a hard-hitting goon squad.

Newman plays Reg Dunlap, an aging rink rat now the player-coach for the Chiefs, a dying franchise in a dying mill town. The team is on a massive losing streak, and attendance is at an all-time low. Two-bit GM Joe McGrath (Newman’s COOL HAND LUKE antagonist Strother Martin) is trying to sell the Chiefs, and things look bleak until Dunlap begins taunting his opponents and the rink violence escalates. Enter a trio of new players named the Hanson Brothers (David Hanson, Jeff and Steve Carlson), who take the art of hockey goons to a whole new level, and the fans return in droves, eating up the carny-like atmosphere like cherry flavored sno-cones.

Young hockey purist Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean, THE ROOKIES, TWIN PEAKS) objects to the pro wrestling inspired mayhem and refuses to take part, but the Chiefs become the hottest attraction in the league, and make their way to the championship game. Meanwhile, Reg tries to discover the true  identity of the Chiefs’ mysterious owner while dealing with marital disharmony (Jennifer Warren, later a director in her own right) as he continues to promote the hell out of his beloved Chiefs in order to save the franchise…

The movie is DEFINITELY non-PC and probably will offend the more sensitive types, but those of you who still have your sense of humor intact will guffaw wildly at the crude jokes and shenanigans taking place on and off the ice. In between the sexist humor and bloody violence you’ll find a serious character study as Newman’s Reg Dunlap goes through a mid-life crisis, including the loss of both his wife and his career. Paul was still in great shape at age 50 and looked like he belonged on a hockey team. Ontkean’s Ned Braden has marriage troubles of his own with wife Lindsay Crouse; both turn in good performances and Ontkean’s wicked funny striptease on ice toward the conclusion is a comedy highlight!

Those wild’n’crazy Hanson Brothers were based on real-life minor league hockey goons the Carlson Brothers, two of whom (Steve and Jeff) play their fictitious selves (third brother Jack was called up to Edmonton, replaced by another hockey goon, Dave “Killer” Hanson). Their cinematic hockey havoc made them minor celebrities, doing personal appearance tours and even making the cover of Sports Illustrated (albeit thirty years later). Besides the always-reliable Strother Martin, others of interest include 70’s favorite Jerry Houser as a Dunlap loyalist, M. Emmett Walsh as a gullible reporter, Brad Sullivan as the obnoxious perv Morris, and the hit song “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale, which keeps popping up throughout the film:

SLAP SHOT’s screenplay by Nancy Dowd was based on the experiences of her brother Ned’s time in the minor leagues (Ned plays the part of feared opponent Oglethorpe in the film). The movie wasn’t a hit at first, but has since become one of the ultimate “guy flicks” thanks to it’s sheer outrageousness. After all, it’s got sex, violence, beer, and sports – what’s not to love, eh? Meanwhile, here in the real world, Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals is about to start, soooo…

LET’S GO BRUINS!!

Bobby Orr’s immortal Stanley Cup winning goal against the St. Louis Blues in 1970!

Rebel Rebel: Paul Newman in COOL HAND LUKE (Warner Brothers 1967)

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The Sixties was the decade of the rebellious anti-hero. The times they were a-changin’ and movies reflected the anti-establishment mood with BONNIE & CLYDE, EASY RIDER, and COOL HAND LUKE. Paul Newman starred as white-trash outsider Luke Jackson, but it was his co-star George Kennedy who took home the Oscar for his role as Dragline, the king of the cons who first despises then idolizes Luke.

War vet Luke gets busted for “malicious destruction of municipal property while drunk”, and sent to a prison farm in Florida. The non-conformist Luke butts heads with both the “bosses” (prison guards aka authority) and Dragline, a near illiterate convict who runs the yard. Dragline and Luke decide to settle their differences in a Saturday boxing match. The hulking Dragline beats the shit out of Luke, but the smaller man keeps getting up for more. Dragline finally walks away, and Luke earns both his and the other con’s respect. Luke gets a visit from his mom Arletta (Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet of EAST OF EDEN), who’s dying and wants to see him one more time. This poignant scene is one of the best as Luke and Arletta discuss his upbringing, and we can see despite the hardships endured in their lives, there’s a strong loving bond between mother and son. The scene’s done without any maudlin Hollywood bullshit, and well handled by Newman, Van Fleet, and director Stuart Rosenberg.

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Then there’s the memorable egg-eating contest, where Luke bets he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour. Dragline backs his play, and the prisoners all put up their money as Luke devours egg after egg, winning the bet in a funny scene. The shot of him lying on the table, surrounded by eggshells, in a crucifixion pose is one of many Christ-like tableaux featuring Luke throughout the film. It gets a little heavy-handed, but it works in this case. Luke gets word his mother has died, and he’s not allowed to attend the funeral. He’s put in “The Box” (a sweltering shed the size of an outhouse) so he doesn’t get “rabbit blood” and try to escape. This only triggers his thirst for freedom, and he attempts a series of escapes, each time getting caught. The punishments get brutaler and brutaler but Luke’s indomitable spirit keeps him going until the tragic end.

Newman and Kennedy head up a great cast,with Strother Martin (“What we have here is failure to communicate”) as The Captain leading guards Morgan Woodward, Luke Askew, and Robert Donner. The cons are played by J.D. Cannon, Wayne Rogers, Dennis Hopper, Ralph Waite, Harry Dean Stanton, and Joe Don Baker, among others. Then there’s Joy Harmon in a brief bit as a local lass washing her car on a hot Florida afternoon. She knows the men on the road gang are watching her, and she’s obviously getting off on turning them on:

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Thank you, Joy!

Stuart Rosenberg began his directing career in the 50’s with the syndicated series DECOY, starring Beverly Garland as a female cop. He moved on to THE NAKED CITY, THE UNTOUCHABLES, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and THE TWILIGHT ZONE before COOL HAND LUKE, his first feature. Rosenberg was a talented director who wasn’t very prolific, but the films he did make were well done. He worked with Newman in three more movies (WUSA, POCKET MONEY, THE DROWNING POOL) and also did LOVE & BULLETS (with Charles Bronson), THE (original) AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, and another prison drama, BRUBAKER, starring Newman’s pal Robert Redford.

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As for Oscar winner Kennedy, COOL HAND LUKE made him a star after years of hard work in small roles. Kennedy was featured in all the AIRPORT and NAKED GUN movies, and had roles in THE DIRTY DOZEN, BANDOLERO!, FOOL’S PARADE, CAHILL US MARSHAL, and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. He starred in the TV police dramas PRIEST and THE BLUE KNIGHT, and the first four seasons of DALLAS. George Kennedy is still with us at age 91, semi-retired but popping up as recently as 2014’s THE GAMBLER with Mark Wahlberg. COOL HAND LUKE is a must-see for fans of 60’s cinema, with another fine Newman performance and a star-making turn for George Kennedy. Put it on your watch list!

Say goodnight, Joy!

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