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