November 24, 2008
Directed by Richard Martin. Screenplay by Brad Riddell. Starring Jeff Carlson, Steven Carlson, David Hanson, Leslie Nielsen, Greyston Holt. Rated PG. Available on DVD on Nov. 25.
We approach this project with an open mind, because a preteen who enjoys "Slap Shot: Junior League" may eventually grow into someone sneaking beers from his dad to watch the bloody, vulgar original classic with his buddies; thus passing the legacy of Reggie Dunlop down to another generation.
To that end, "Slap Shot: The Junior League" -- the 2008 direct-to-DVD grandchild of the 1977 classic -- is moderately successful.
There are enough references and tributes to the original George Roy Hill comedy about the rag-tag Charlestown Chiefs -- from Hanson Brothers' old-time hockey to literal recreations of classic jokes -- that a young viewer may actually be motivated to ask his or her father what, exactly, "puttin' on the foil" means. That can only be a good thing.
That doesn't excuse "Slap Shot: The Junior League" from being a mishmash of head-smacking plot contrivances, awkward cameos and reheated leftovers from the "Mighty Ducks" franchise. But it does make it much less morally reprehensible than that Stephen Baldwin blasphemy from 2002.
The opening scenes of "Slap Shot: The Junior League" are a microcosm of the film's deficiencies. It's a montage of the Hanson Brothers' greatest hits from the 1977 film: The unhinged screaming from the bench, the bloody brawls, the slot cars, "F'n machine took my quarter!" ... you know, the classics.
And hey, here's comedy icon Leslie Nielsen, doing the narration! "Metropolis has its Superman, Gotham City had its Batman, and Charlestown had the Hansons."
Only Lt. Frank Drebin pronounces it "Charleston" instead of "Charlestown." Which wouldn't normally be an egregious error if Nielsen wasn't playing the mayor of a town he can't pronounce correctly.
Fifty-three seconds into the film, and you're already wondering about over an hour and a half's worth of overlooked details. I'd blame Nielsen, who appears unable to give a clean line-reading of the voiceover; but there's simply no way I can stay angry with the man who gave the world "Don't call me Shirley" and that scene in "The Naked Gun" where he leaves the wireless mic on while taking a whizz.
"Slap Shot: The Junior League" focuses on The Newman Home for Boys (great tribute), perhaps the whitest collection of wayward orphans since "Oliver!"
Riley (Greyston Holt) is our Reggie Dunlop with dimples, watching over the kids in lieu of adult supervision. Naturally, he and the rest of the orphans are hockey-obsessed, to the point where the attic of their home is used for shooting practice, complete with goaltending practice dummy and dasher boards. Combine that with the dirt-floor ball hockey rink in the barn, and these kids may have better practice facilities than several ECHL teams.
Threatening to shutter the orphanage is Bernie Frazier (Lynda Boyd), your Rachel Phelps-in-"Major League"/hell on heels/ruthless businesswoman. Her plan is to buy up all the land in Charlestown and turn it into the world's largest mixed-use retail/golf/high-end housing/hockey arena in modern times. The Newman Home for Boys, it seems, only has two months before the city votes to close it down and have it demolished.
A local rink manager tells our hero Riley there's really only one logical way to save the house: Joining the Pennsylvania junior hockey league as an expansion team, defeating the juggernaut Ice Hounds (for which hell-on-heels Frazier's son is the goalie) and rallying the town behind their cause.
OK, it's not so much a "logical" way as it is a "we need to get the Hansons in this movie somehow" way.
(BTW: The film takes place in Pennsylvania, but was filmed in Canada. We know this because there isn't a Pittsburgh or Philadelphia accent to be found. And because one of the kids counts down in French numbers at one point. And because the players are genuinely excited to meet Doug Gilmour. More on that later.)
When Riley visits the now-weathered Hansons at their suburban home, he discovers the Brothers have won the lottery, rejected all types of violence and adopted a Zen lifestyle. (The Zen/hockey blatherings come dangerously close to evoking "The Love Guru.") But they also grew up in the Newman House for Boys, and thus agree commit their funding and coaching expertise to the team.
What follows is "Mighty Ducks" minus the distinct personalities and with a slightly higher level of overall hockey acumen. It's bland and meandering, at least until the movie finds a pulse about 40 minutes in when the Hansons ditch the Zen shtick and preach the virtues of old-time hockey.
Seeing some of the classic "Slap Shot" gags recreated while these kids are wearing the Chiefs sweaters -- like the hockey stick face-smacking along the opponents' bench -- provides some genuine laughs and a nostalgic kick.
Unfortunately, "Slap Shot: The Junior League" doesn't commit to the "Bad News Bears on ice" swagger befitting a pint-sized "Slap Shot" sequel. It never gets outlandish enough, on or off the ice. Where's the mischief? Where's the pre-teen equivalent of a "Hey, Hanrahan!" taunt? There's a promise made with the film's title, characters and references that it never intends to keep. Which is sad, because "Junior League" even goes through the trouble of introducing the next generation of Hansons without giving them anything to do beyond short fits of mimicry.
Part of the problem is the lead character of Riley -- we came for Reggie Dunlop, we were given Ned Braden.
Riley's a dorky, bland Boy Scout where the film needed a Ryan Reynolds-level rascal. This is confirmed when Riley enters a love triangle with a lovely female hockey star (Emma Lahana), who's also flirting with goaltending rival Kaine Fraizer (Ryan McDonell). Kaine's roughly 20,000 times more engaging than Riley, and much more in keeping with the "Slap Shot" tradition; witness his ridicule in which he asks a boys' home player, "Who's your daddy? Oh, you don't have one, do you?" Ouch.
Let's give the film credit for packing "Junior League" with references to the original. There's a pop-punk version of "Right Back Where We Started From" on the soundtrack (performed by The Hanson Bros., no less). There's Dickie Dunn Jr. and Dickie Dunn III broadcasting from the radio booth. (Must be high demand for qualifying-round junior hockey in the Keystone State to have all these games on commercial radio.) There's even a recreation of the "Let'em Know You're There!" speech from the original.
There's also NHL royalty that make wonderfully awkward cameo appearances in the film. Why? I'm not sure.
Former Toronto Maple Leafs star Doug Gilmour shows up to ... advise the players? Coach the team? He mostly stands around with his hands in a leather jacket. Dude made more of an impact on the '03 Leafs than he did in this movie.
And then there's the much-heralded cameo (he's even on the DVD box) by Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers legend Mark Messier. He gives some speech about the value of good competition and winning with the respect; none of it registers because of the eerie, Christ-like glow silhouetting his giant bald dome:
Why the wicked back-lighting? According to a documentary on the DVD, Mess couldn't be bothered with showing up at the rink for the shoot, so he filmed his big speech via green screen. You might call that mailing it in, but that would be an insult to his time with the Vancouver Canucks ...
That said, there is a killer payoff to his appearance; an inside joke between Messier and the Hansons. Hint: Think potato chips.
The rest of the DVD has the aforementioned documentary about Messier and Gilmour, one about the making of the film and some deleted scenes. Nothing special.
Perhaps some of this critique comes from a "Slap Shot" fan placing his expectations and hopes on a film that never intended to meet them. "Junior League" is a movie that'll get some knowing smiles from fans of the original, but not much else.
But on its own merits, "Slap Shot: The Junior League" will likely entertain its target audience of pre-teens and young adults that are into hockey; it has some laughs, well-filmed action and speaks their language with (soon to be dated, of course) references to Facebook and the Nintendo Wii.
And after seeing "Junior League," if any young viewer is inspired to watch the Hanson Brothers' first appearance in a "Slap Shot" film ... well, that's worth excusing a few missed details and shoddy plotting, right?