Best known for shiny corporate successes like THE STING/’73 and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID/’69, George Roy Hill tossed out his playbook, shed ‘the cutes,’ and went all loosey-goosey on this messy, highly entertaining sports pic. Charting the fast-fading course of a minor league hockey team in a depressed rust-belt town, the film lets Paul Newman skate one long victory lap as the manipulating player/coach who holds his team’s wild final season together by going to hockey’s dark side. (You know, the ‘I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out’ mentality.) And, even with an ending that bogs down with excess self-congratulation, it’s all pretty darn funny. (Scripter Nancy Dowd, writing from life, did little else, but this was plenty.) Hill does a canny job of casting (a threesome of hockey goons, the Hanson boys, earned a deserved cult following in hockey circles; and Brad Sullivan, he’s the sex-obsessed player with the hangdog expression, is equally memorable), and what luck that all the appalling period details of late ‘70s style were already in place to help set the tone. No comment needed for the era’s personal grooming and fashions to make their comic point. (Newman’s outfits deserve their own Hall of Shame.) Same for the grainy film stock & grimy production values of the day, a perfect match for the WTF attitude of the film and the national mood, as if every foreground and background were in on the joke. Sports pics blossom in three varieties: Inspirational; Weepy; or Down-and-Dirty. Look elsewhere for the first two types; grab this one for the third.
DOUBLE-BILL: Ron Shelton’s TIN CUP/’96 makes a worthy companion (and with a near perfect ending). But to really see what’s possible, nothing touches Patrick Dewaere in the Jean-Jacques Annaud/Francis Veber minor league soccer takedown COUP DE TÊTE/’79, sadly unknown Stateside.