Ever since I became a full-fledged movie geek (which happened sometime between Kevin Smith filming a bunch of unknowns playing hockey on the roof of a convenience store and Doug Liman filming Vince Vaughn making Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed), it’s seemed to me that there’s been some strange connection between being a film buff and being a hockey fan. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that hockey is always our least popular major sport and most people only pay attention to it when their home team is doing well in the playoffs, much in the same way that they only pay attention to art films when it’s Oscar time. There’s something scruffy and outside the norm about movie geeks, and there’s something scruffy and outside the norm about hockey, so the two see a lot of overlap.
That general scruffiness explains why the go-to hockey movie for people who really like hockey and really like movies has always been Slap Shot, the 1977 comedy from director George Roy Hill that stars Paul Newman as the aging player/coach of a down on their luck minor league hockey team. It’s not about the players with the most potential or the biggest hearts, it’s about the scruffy rejects who earn their notoriety by becoming the detestable goons and enforcers of the league. These guys don’t beat your team by out-skating your best players, they beat your team by pounding your best players so hard that they can’t play. Fans of cult film love to root for the bad guy, so they’ve always loved to root for Newman’s Reggie Dunlop, the coke-bottle glasses wearing roughnecks, the Hanson brothers, and all of the other colorful characters on the Charlestown Chiefs.
But it’s always seemed to me that Slap Shot fans have heaped too much praise on their film and ignored some of its weaknesses. They focus on its gleeful nihilism and its handful of funny moments and ignore the fact that it’s also painfully dated in many respects, has slow stretches, and doesn’t really tell much of a story. The mindset seems to be that this is one of the only movies out there that celebrates hockey, so instead of picking it apart we should just enjoy it. That mindset might soon change though, because last year director Michael Dowse released a similar-in-spirit hockey movie called Goon that’s been turning heads and gaining more buzz as the months have passed. It stars Seann William Scott as a budding hockey enforcer named Doug Blatt, a character whose story not only looks considerably more contemporary than the exploits of the guys from Slap Shot, but that also makes for a better movie.
What do they have in common?
Both find humor in the outlandish personalities of minor league hockey, and both wallow in the escapism of thoughtless violence. That’s what hockey is all about: weird foreigners punching each other and talking with silly accents.
Why is Slap Shot overrated?
One of the main reasons Slap Shot can’t live up to the praise its fans give it is that it looks so dated to modern sensibilities. When I say dated I’m not talking about the ridiculous outfits and facial hair the characters sport, or the fact that a movie about rough and tumble hockey players gets scored with Maxine Nightingale’s “Get Right Back Where We Started From” either (okay, so a little bit I’m talking about that). The reason its dated is that it’s so deeply entrenched in all the tropes of the raunchy sex comedies that were prevalent in the late ’70s and early ’80s. How much of this film’s runtime is made up of shots of Paul Newman smiling disbelievingly at some sort of hijinks his players are getting into? A lot of it. These guys howl and drool at every woman who walks by, and generally obsess over sex and sexuality like they’re the sex-starved teenagers of a Porky’s movie. Did the people making this movie forget they were making a movie about adults? Or was everyone really this publicly sex-crazed before the Internet allowed us to take our perversions tastefully behind closed doors?
This segues nicely into another of the movie’s big problems: it spends too much time boring us with updates on these guys’ romantic lives. When people talk about Slap Shot, generally all they talk about are how much goofy fun the Hanson brothers are—but those guys are barely in the movie. They get like two dialogue scenes and a roughhousing montage, and that’s it. Instead, we spend a good chunk of the film focused on Newman’s romantic exploits, which there was really no reason to become invested in at all. This guy wasn’t looking for love, he wasn’t overcoming any struggle, so who cares who’s boning who?
The main problem with Slap Shot, however, is its lack of a traditional structure. We blindly stumble through the Chiefs’ season without really having a goal in sight. They might be getting sold next year, they might not. Newman’s character might have to retire next year, he might not. There isn’t even any emphasis put on whether or not they win their games. The only thing that gets any real build in the film is the presence of hockey Goon God Ogie Ogilthorpe, who the team is eventually going to have to go up against. But after he gets a thousand mentions and eventually shows up in the film he just…doesn’t really do anything. Instead of something involving Ogilthorpe, the climax comes when one of the players does a strip show on the ice and everyone stops playing the championship game to gawk at it like it’s the craziest thing they’ve ever seen. It doesn’t work. Slap Shot peaks when the Hansons attack the fans halfway though the movie, and it never finds anywhere worthwhile to go after that.
Why is Goon underpraised?
This is the type of movie that’s only going to grow in esteem over the years, because its fans are going to watch it multiple times and they’re going to put it into the hands of all their friends who like comedy or hockey. The very first scene is of blood artfully splattering against the ice, a tooth tragically plummeting to the ground, all set to mock-heroic music. Instantly you know you’re watching a movie that just gets it. And, in addition to its charmingly obstinate refusal to admit that violence is a bad thing, Goon manages to be really funny all the way through too. Sure, it’s got just as many dumb wiener jokes as Slap Shot, but it’s also got amazing stuff like the Assassins’ coach randomly drawing that wolf named Loopy, the goalie’s rules regarding Percocets, and how bad for comic timing Russian accents are. There are enough little treasures in here to make digging worthwhile.
As far as the bigger picture goes, Goon actually gives you a protagonist whose fate you can get invested in and it builds itself up to big moments that pay off, so it resonates much more than Slap Shot. Really, who knew that Stifler had it in him to play such a lovable dope? His hockey goon works so well as a character because he’s searching for purpose and acceptance. We want to see him learn to use his gifts of destruction for something positive, so the development of his career is treated as being something important. When he meets a girl he pursues her because he’s actually looking for love, so the romantic scenes he shares with Alison Pill are actually treated as being something important. There’s a novel concept: if you want people to get something out of the story you’re telling, why not start by treating it like it’s important?
Goon doesn’t just stop at making the stakes of the story clear and giving the protagonist solid goals either, it also manages to build its various subplots into climaxes that pay off in satisfying ways. Unlike Ogilthorpe in Slap Shot, the badass enforcer that gets introduced in Goon plays an important role in its third act. He’s a veteran bruiser played by Liev Schreiber, and not only is he an interesting character in his own right, but it’s made clear that his confrontation with Doug Glatt is inevitable, and when it happens it represents the culmination of everything both characters have been working toward. The rush of dopamine that comes from a story being paid off satisfactorily gets recreated with every watch, and that’s going to be the sort of thing fans come back to Goon for over and over again. Plus, just try to get through Pill’s adorable proclamation of, “You make me want to stop sleeping with a bunch of guys,” and not walk away from it feeling warm and tingly. Dare you.
Evening the odds.
Probably the most jarring aspect of both of these movies is the amount of anti-gay slurs they contain. Probably that can be attributed to an attempt at staying true to the unique vulgarities of locker room talk, and how years of too much testosterone and repression generally lead to men accusing each other of putting penises in their mouths, but it’s all still distasteful to hear. Just because fans of Slap Shot and Goon like to watch guys perpetrating hateful acts on one another doesn’t mean that we support hate speech.
So it’s probably here where Goon makes the most worthy updates to the Slap Shot formula. Yeah, there’s some weird sexual humor coming from the Russians, and yeah, everything Jay Baruchel’s character says is generally crass and offensive, but the film also gives us an actual gay character—the brother who our protagonist stands up for and values. Baruchel and Evan Goldberg’s script still couldn’t help but throw a handful of slurs in there, but they at least cut the hate with acts of tolerance. Slap Shot’s gay slurs come off as bitter and angry, as the product of an era when it was assumed that enough people still hated homosexuals that it was okay to make fun of them in a public forum. It’s nice to see that some progress is being made, even in our nation’s locker rooms.
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