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Review: 'The Last Gladiators' hits on NHL enforcer's tale

Chris “Knuckles” Nilan is the centerpiece of 'The Last Gladiators.' Locomotion Pictures

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‘The Last Gladiators'

★★★★ R for language, sports violence

Manor Theatre

Pittsburgher movie quiz for yunz

Is 'Birdman' star Michael Keaton the best actor with western Pennsylvania ties? Click here to play the Trib's tongue-in-cheek attempt to find out.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Colin Covert
Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
 

What's a big-issues documentarian like Alex Gibney (“Client 9,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) doing making a film about professional hockey's fist-swinging enforcers? Digging up an engrossing story, that's what. The focus is Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who played 13 years in the NHL, dropped gloves like they were hot rocks and got more penalty minutes than almost anyone else in the league. Boston-born Nilan skated (and punched) mostly for the Montreal Canadiens, throwing almost as many jabs at team management as he did on the ice. “With Chris,” one commentator observes, “disrespect was everything.”

At the end of his career, he was in his 30s with no savings, no path forward and an increasing dependence on drink and drugs. For all his Neanderthal aggression and criminality, Nilan, now 55, is a likable subject and a nakedly candid one. His soul is a running wound and he exposes it to our view without shame. The opening sections of this film play like a greatest-hits clip collection, but when Gibney delves deeper into Nilan's personality, it's a magnetic portrait of a rinkside Raging Bull.

Colin Covert is a movie critic for the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.

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