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Prolific documentary maker Alex Gibney, whose subjects have included Enron, Eliot Spitzer and U.S. military-sanctioned torture in his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, takes a probing look at the toughest guys in ice hockey in The Last Gladiators. The film has a compellingly rough-hewn central figure in former Montreal Canadiens star enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. That should make it score with historically curious NHL fans, even if the emotional payoff to provide broader appeal is missing.
For audiences with little knowledge of professional hockey, Gibney’s sharply crafted film offers an exhaustive education, particularly about the decades before changes in the rules diminished the importance of enforcers. That hardheaded breed serves primarily as muscle, to keep the opposing team off the more skilled tactical players, responding to dirty moves and often instigating them in brutal clashes. Enforcers, who can play forward, defense or wing positions, generally are less crucial as scorers, and the more bellicose examples tend to be categorized as goons.
Nilan to some degree elevated the role during his 13 years in the NHL, particularly when he played with enormous pride and passion for the Montreal Canadiens, helping them win the Stanley Cup in 1986.
While prone to mouthing off and letting his fists fly, Nilan was beloved by his fellow players and fans, and given royal treatment around town. But when friction with a new coach led to him being traded to the New York Rangers, Nilan’s demoralization began slowly killing his career. A stint with his hometown team, the Boston Bruins, followed. But with the confidence sucked out of him, what should have been the fulfillment of a childhood dream instead became another disappointment. His retirement-season return to Montreal was similarly bitter.
An authentic, likable character, Nilan inherited his aggression from his Green Beret father. From a young age, he picked fights with muscleheads in the neighborhood and defended the smaller kids while earning a reputation for fearlessness verging on craziness. Ice hockey was a natural fit. There’s a certain poetry in this scrappy guy finding a place where his brawling tendencies were an asset. But when that channel was closed off to him, professional indirection and personal missteps led him from alcohol to painkillers to heroin.
Gibney opens the film with striking images of Nilan’s battered hands in close-up as he displays his scars, his smashed knuckles and bitten fingers. He reveals later that he has had 26 different surgeries as a result of hockey injuries, and his issues with violence and substance abuse evidently are common to a lot of enforcers off the ice.
The film aims to breathe sad nobility into its portrait of the obsolete warrior unsure what to do with his fighting instincts out in the real world. There’s no shortage of pathos in Nilan’s story. While details of his marriage and divorce appear to have been taken off the table for discussion, he is an articulate and candid subject, speaking freely about his mistakes and his struggle to overcome his demons. Nilan’s father, a classic Boston-Irishman with a hard-ass demeanor and an unembarrassed emotional streak, is also quite moving, acknowledging the shame he felt after his son’s wave had crested and the downward spiral began.
Nilan’s post-NHL life continues to evolve as he pursues new opportunities, which might be satisfying enough as a conclusion had Gibney kept the focus tighter. But he spends so much time and detail on other enforcers that the power of the core drama is diluted and the film feels baggy even at 94 minutes. The chief weakness of The Last Gladiatorsis that plural in the title. It might play well with ESPN obsessives, but in attempting to honor an entire generation of battle-scarred tough guys, the filmmakers shortchange the man who should be the heart of their story.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Jigsaw Production in association with Northern Lights Hockey
Director: Alex Gibney
Screenwriters: Larry Weitzman, Jim Podhoretz, Alex Gibney
Producers: Alex Gibney, Jim Podhoretz, Larry Weitzman
Executive producers: Barry Reese, Donald “Dee” Rizzo, Michael Messner, George Gund, Robert L. Brooks
Directors of photography: Laurent Beauchemin, Geoffory Beauchemin, Mark Berger, Benjamin Bloodwell, Stephen Chung, Body Estus, Lyle Morgan, Christopher Romeike Alex Margineanu, Larry Lecain
Music: David Kahne
Editor: Jim Podhoretz
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
No rating, 94 minutes
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