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Memorable sports movie of decades past

Sports movies can serve as a backdrop for all kinds of storytelling about what it means to navigate through life. But mid-budget movies have all but disappeared from theaters, taking sports movies with them. When was the last time you saw a great sports comedy or drama that was new? Once a hardy genre, sports movies are something of an endangered species at the moment.
With that in mind, Tribune film critic Nina Metz and sports writer Shakeia Taylor look back at four titles from decades past: “Slap Shot,” “A League of Their Own,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Bend it Like Beckham.” All are rentable or available on a streaming platform.
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Note: Next month Taylor will take part in the panel discussion “Leveling the Playing Field: Women in Baseball,” hosted by the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York, to talk about how women of color are stepping up to the plate across baseball.
Michael Ontkean and Paul Newman in “Slap Shot.” (Universal/Handout)
‘Slap Shot’ (1977)
Paul Newman plays an aging player-coach of a struggling minor league hockey team
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Nina Metz: Set in a small Pennsylvania steel town, the movie is as grimy as they come, both in look (perpetually overcast skies) and sensibility (plenty of the dialogue will make you wince). Things are not going well for Newman’s disillusioned, over-the-hill Reggie Dunlap, which is evident when he takes the ice and a heckler shouts: “Dunlap, you stink!” The mill is closing and 10,000 people will be out of work, which means the team is on its last legs, too. Might as well go out with a bang — and a brawl. The three bespectacled Hanson brothers, wrapping their knuckles in tin foil underneath their gloves, are ready to rumble.
This was Newman’s third time working with director George Roy Hill (after “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting”) and it’s such a distillation of 70s-era cynicism. This isn’t a rousing story of beating the odds, but one with a jaundiced outlook on life. True, they win the championship in the end, but it’s the way they win that’s so absurd. Screenwriter Nancy Dowd based the script on her brother’s minor league hockey experiences and the cast is populated with real players, which gives the movie a shambling, insider quality.
It’s too long by 30 minutes, but the soundtrack is tops and Newman is somehow both clown and ringmaster — and watchable as ever. A snapshot in time, it’s surreal to watch players take the ice sans helmets. That used to be standard, but I clutched my metaphorical pearls for those guys and their noggins.
Shakeia, you hadn’t seen the movie before now. Did you have any preconceptions or did you go in cold?
Shakeia Taylor: I went into the movie cold. I’d only ever seen hockey friends talking about it as I scrolled social media. Conversations about it never piqued my interest so I never sought the movie out until we decided to do this. I knew nothing of Paul Newman except that his face is on a salad dressing bottle. When the movie started, I did a quick Google search and saw it described as “grimy,” and having now seen it, I’d have to disagree. I didn’t think it was grimy at all and I didn’t really think the violence was anything to write home about. It’s entirely possible that is just the result of me being born in a different time and having seen so many movies that were far worse in that regard. It felt satirical, though I couldn’t tell if that was intentional or not, and based off things I read after watching the movie there seems to be some disagreement about whether that was the point. It’s listed as a “sports comedy” which might be a stretch as I found it more sad than humorous.
Metz: Newman was 52 when he made the movie, which seems … old for a hockey player? But maybe not? As someone who covers sports, what was your feeling in terms of how the movie captured the vibe of a minor league team grinding it out?
Taylor: While it seems like it captures semipro hockey of its era, I don’t think it is the same today. The tattered bus and less-than-ideal travel accommodations are very much something one hears about as it pertains to minor league travel. Teams still experience economic uncertainty and players aren’t compensated enough. Playing in the minor leagues of any sport is challenging even today. While the socio-economic impact is the obvious thing in “Slap Shot” and still lingers today, I think as sports have become more formal and a lot of the grittier action has gone away.
And there have been “old” hockey players! Gordie Howe played for the Hartford Whalers at the age of 52. If I’m not mistaken he remains the oldest player of all-time in the sport. One of the funniest things about sports to me is how someone can be 35 and commentators will speak about them as if they’ve got one foot in the grave. There’s a popular Twitter meme that says, “Here comes the oldest player in the league. He’s 32. A miracle.” That’s exactly how it seems. With the advances we’ve made in science and medicine, athletes take much better care of their bodies but they don’t play as long as Newman’s character and Howe.
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From left: Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell in “A League of Their Own.” (Columbia Pictures)
‘A League of Their Own’ (1992)
Geena Davis and Lori Petty star as sisters and baseball players in the early 1940s who join the Rockford Peaches, a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Metz: Shakeia, I know you have some thoughts about this one …
Taylor: I am not a fan. I generally don’t say much about it because a lot of people absolutely love “A League of Their Own” and I would prefer not to argue about it. Watching it for this conversation wasn’t my first viewing, but it wasn’t fun. I will say, though, this movie is how I first learned of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson. Johnson was the first woman to pitch in the Negro leagues and she was denied a tryout for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League because she was Black. In the film, there is a scene where Dottie (Davis’ character) waits for a young Black woman to throw the ball back to her — that was a nod to Mamie. That one scene made me look up who she was supposed to be. I’ve always felt as if the movie romanticized a league that was, at its core, racist, but it also impacted the trajectory of my career. It led to me doing a lot of studying of the Negro leagues once I got older.
I understand why so many people love it. It’s nice to see women in sports films and it’s nice to see women depicted as strong, vulnerable and a host of other human qualities. But that one thing made me dislike the movie forever. It’s not director Penny Marshall’s fault that history is what it is, but that doesn’t make it less bothersome for me personally.
Metz: The recent Amazon TV adaptation attempted to right some of the film’s omissions you talk about, by creating a parallel storyline for a character played by Chanté Adams — and no surprise, her portions of the show are the most interesting!
Tonally and visually, the movie version of “A League of Our Own” is on another planet from something like “Slap Shot.” It’s probably the corniest of the four titles we’re looking at. Before I sat down for a re-watch, not much had stayed in my memory beyond the broad strokes: The sisterly rivalry, the tryout scene shot at Wrigley Field, Tom Hanks as the cynical boozer of a manager who yells “There’s no crying in baseball!”
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The movie’s depiction of World War II-era America always felt set off by air-quotes, which isn’t a bad thing so much as par for the course for a big studio project. It’s earnest but light. The jokes are broad, but by the end, the film is aggressively pulling at your heartstrings with Madonna (who also stars) singing “This Used to Be My Playground” over the closing credits. And it memorializes what was, up until its release in theaters, a largely forgotten part of (white) sports history.
From left: Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in 1992’s “White Men Can’t Jump.” (Twentieth Century Fox)
‘White Men Can’t Jump’ (1992)
Two street basketball hustlers in Los Angeles, played by Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, team up to score some cash.
Metz: When it comes to shaggy dog sports movies of the late 20th century, few did it better than Ron Shelton. As a writer and director, he understood the appeal of semi-ridiculous, semi-charming men past their prime looking for one last shot at greatness — or at least a half-baked redemption. Sandwiched between the soulful minor league romance of “Bull Durham” and dusty pro golfing dreams of “Tin Cup,” Shelton turned to the antic pickup games of Los Angeles for this odd-couple buddy film starring Harrelson and Snipes as a pair who team up to hustle any takers. Add in the effervescent presence of Rosie Perez and her “Jeopardy!” ambitions. It’s sexy!
Harrelson plays a decent guy who is his own worst enemy. Snipes plays a fast-talking, street savvy type who isn’t above conning his own partner. I like that the movie doesn’t have a classically happy ending.
A remake starring Jack Harlow and Sinqua Walls came out earlier this year and, frankly, the less said about that, the better.
Taylor: First I have to say, “White Men Can’t Jump” is one of the greatest sneaker movies of all-time. As someone who spends a lot of her time in sneakers — err, gym shoes, this is Chicago — I couldn’t help but take in the many pairs of now-classic kicks in the basketball scenes. Snipes’ character’s style of dress was perfect for the era and some of it would work today.
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OK, now I can get to the movie itself.
I enjoyed this movie. It had been a very long time since I’d seen it and it was a fun watch. It doesn’t take itself seriously but watching with adult eyes and experiences, I couldn’t help but think about Harrelson’s character’s obvious gambling addiction. That’s what that was, right? His inability to get and keep money because the allure of possibly doubling or tripling it was too much for him to ignore. Perez threatening to leave him over it didn’t really seem to affect his decision-making until she left. I’d imagine something like that would be relevant today with the way sports gambling has made its way into mainstream sports in a major way. It’s in everything now.
Metz: You’d think! And yet nothing about the remake feels relevant or worth your time. Have I mentioned how pointless that movie is?
Taylor: An underrated aspect of the original film, to me, were the women. They are secondary characters to the men, yet when they appear they command your attention.
Parminder Nagra (center, wearing a sari) in “Bend it Like Beckham.” (Courtesy of Albatros Film)
‘Bend it Like Beckham’ (2002)
The daughter of Indian immigrants in London, a teenager played by Parminder Nagra goes against her family’s wishes and joins an amateur football (soccer) team. The film was also Keira Knightley’s breakout role.
Metz: Wait, I did not remember that Archie Panjabi (the Emmy winner from “The Good Wife”) played the wedding-obsessed older sister! I always liked the way the movie portrays the first generation experience. Nagra’s teenager loves her family and (mostly) respects the traditions they’re trying to maintain, but damn it, she wants to play football and she’s good. But it’s also a story of mothers as antagonists in their daughters’ lives, while their fathers are the more understanding parents. Men are never an impediment in the story, which feels less like less like a choice for specific characters than part of the movie’s overall theme and I’m not sure what to make of it. The flirtation with her coach? Yikes.
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Directed by Gurinder Chadha (who is also co-writer), the British film almost saw its title changed to “Move it Like Mia” for its U.S. release — the theory being that Mia Hamm was a more recognizable name to American audiences than David Beckham.
Taylor: Zzzzzz… I had to fight the urge to turn it off, to sleep, to do literally anything else. I pressed on because I was looking forward to talking to you. But! I love football. I think it’s one of the most fascinating sports on the planet. Red card! Yellow card! You get a card! There was a lot of flopping on the pitch in this.
I’d never seen “Bend it Like Beckham” before and I cringed a lot. The wedding obsession, the “things girls should and should not do”, the moms! I thought the dads being the more sympathetic parent was kind of boring. I feel like a lot of young women’s dads are the ones to give in and the movie didn’t stray from that. A high school senior falling in love with her coach was truly something. Did you notice the club scene where there were no cellphones? That would not happen today!
David Beckham is absolutely, for better or worse, depending on your perspective, a more recognizable name. Women in sports don’t always carry the same name recognition as men, something I think is slowly changing thankfully. I’d never known that fact about the considered name change, but Hamm retired a year or so after this premiered.
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
Shakeia Taylor is a Tribune sports writer and deputy senior content editor
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nmetz@chicagotribune.com
staylor@chicagotribune.com

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