Movie review: 'Last Gladiators' wins battle for mind, heart

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Call them what you will. Hockey goons, enforcers, the brawlers who provide protection for the finesse players.

Alex Gibney's new documentary gives them another name: "The Last Gladiators."

Front and center in the movie, opening today at the Manor in Squirrel Hill, is Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, a retired player who chalked up more than 3,000 penalty minutes during his career along with 26 surgeries and a personal story as compelling as it is cautionary.

'The Last Gladiators'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

  • Rating:

    R for language.

An Irish kid from West Roxbury, near Boston, he never shrank from a fight before or after he was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 17th round. He was No. 231 out of 235 players taken that year.

That made no difference in how he played or scrapped, even or especially against the Philadelphia Flyers known as the Broad Street Bullies. "I might get a black eye or I might get cut or a couple of stitches, but I ain't goin' down," he said.

For years, he didn't go down, and, in fact, a teammate said Mr. Nilan "became the patron saint of all hockey players who aspire to be something other than a goon." He put in the time after practice so he could be a regular player and not just the guy dropping the gloves as the crowd cheered.

Everyone loved Mr. Nilan. Life was good. As Chris' dad says, "We were riding the crest of the wave" but didn't know it was about to break. And break it did.

The second half of the movie charts the rest of the story, and it's often a sad one. Mr. Nilan is the rare player who acknowledges the toll a trade took on him. "It broke me. I never got over it," he said of his exile from Montreal.

"The Last Gladiators" is structured like a double helix, with one strand devoted to Mr. Nilan and the other to fellow hockey tough guys (such as Marty McSorley, Donald Brashear, Paul Shantz and Tony Twist) and experts weighing in on the role of these players. For some, it was the only way to stay in the game they loved.

Even if almost everything you know about hockey comes from the movies, be it "Slap Shot" or "Goon," you will have no problem with "The Last Gladiators," which has a strong Western Pennsylvania presence in executive producers and investors. (The PG's Dave Molinari detailed that in a story Sunday.)

Mr. Gibney, after all, won an Oscar for "Taxi to the Dark Side" in which he used the homicide of an Afghani taxi driver at Bagram air base in 2002 to examine torture and corruption of the human spirit. He was nominated for "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and made "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," among other projects.

Mr. Nilan is remarkably candid about his fall from grace, but the movie is missing the voices of his three children, a step back for a broader look at suicide and substance abuse (not to mention concussions) among retirees and even more about the recent personal life and charity work of the onetime Canadien.

"Last Gladiators" makes clear the physical price players pay and would happily pay again. As one who suffered a broken wrist, dislocated shoulder, broken jaw, broken nose and broken neck says, "I don't regret anything. I'd give anything for reincarnation. Make me 18 again. I want to ride the roller coaster again."

And that says it all.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:


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