(2011)3Perry SeibertAt one point in the classic hockey comedy Slapshot, an announcer screams with gusto "Everybody is on their feet screaming kill, kill, kill! This is hockey!" That quote not only appears in, but provides the jumping off point for Alex Gibney's The Last Gladiators, a documentary about hockey "enforcers" that centers on the life and career of one of the all-time greats in that role, Chris "Knuckles" Nilan. Gibney starts his movie with a close-up of Nilan's hands while the former Montreal Canadian goes through a Jaws-like list of the various injuries he's suffered to them. That smart beginning lets the viewer know this is going to be a tough, unsentimental look at the one of the most brutal athletic endeavors on the planet. Nilan's early life gets sketched out quickly, but thoroughly. He was always the toughest of the tough guys he hung out with, and his own father freely admits to punching the headstrong teenager. The only thing Chris really loved was hockey, and he found his role models in the 70's Boston Bruins, a squad that took fighting to a whole new level in order to protect their star player, the legendary Bobby Orr. As we get to know Nilan throughout the first half of The Last Gladiators, he triggers an ambivalent response; he's straightforward and honest, but he's also scary and there are hints that he can't always turn off his aggressive instincts. That constant feeling of being simultaneously attracted to and turned off by the subject matter seems to be how Gibney wants us to feel about hockey fights in general. He takes time to explain how enforcers and goons came to dominate professional hockey in the 70s and 80s, serving up clips of vicious fights and experts explaining how Wayne Gretzky would never have become "The Great One" if not foMarty McSorely making opposing players pay for trying to stop the golden boy. This is the most outright entertaining section of the movie, it's where Gibney seems most won over by the gladiator mentality of famed tough guys like McSorley, Tony Twist, and Bob Probert. In reality, the director is setting us up for the second half of the movie where he details how incredibly bad life turned out for many of these guys. McSorley would go to trial for needlessly assaulting another player on the ice with his stick, and Probert was arrested on multiple occasions. However, it's Nilan's story that is the focus here, and his fall after he left the game is probably the most shocking, and somehow the most understandable. What Gibney does best in The Last Gladiators is get us inside the head of this man and make us see how he achieved more than he ever imagined, but is wired in such a way that what made him such a fearsome figure on the ice is also what causes him the most problems when he doesn't have an organized outlet for his tendencies. His life is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Gibney doesn't go the next step and ask why fans continue to support actions and behaviors that are, outside of the context of the game, criminal. Not taking such a demanding question head-on might be disappointing, but it's forgivable because, while his award-wining political documentaries expertly capture the big picture on their subjects, the scale is smaller -- more personal -- with The Last Gladiators.
Chris "Knuckles" Nilan is the focus of Alex Gibney's The Last Gladiators, a documentary that examines the role hockey "enforcers" -- tough guys hired to protect star hockey players on the ice and get into fights with each other -- played for decades in the NHL. Full of entertaining fight footage, and interviews with uber-tough guys like Tony Twist and Marty McSorley, Gibney's film also addresses head-on how the personalities of the men who did this job better than others have often made it very difficult for them to have a problem-free life after they are too old to continue their careers. The Last Gladiators played at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.