When it keeps its focus on its subject, Alex Gibney’s documentary on retired professional hockey player Chris “Knuckles” Nilan recalls James Toback’s Tyson, another revealing and compelling portrait of a slightly unhinged athlete who achieved notoriety in his sport, but couldn’t function outside of it. But by trying to cram stories of other classic “enforcers” of the ice into the film’s tight 96-minute running time, as if Nilan’s rollercoaster ride of a life weren’t chockfull of enough material to stand on its own, Gibney cuts his main subject short. Nonetheless, Nilan’s articulate interviews and commentary are so incisive, and the film’s editing so sharp, that whenever The Last Gladiators refocuses on Nilan, it not only picks back up its pace, but it can feel as on-target as if it were scoring with slap shots.
The doc makes us feel as if we know a lot about Nilan’s life, but it’s actually skirting critical parts of it, as his wife and children, and his relationships with them, are left largely unexamined. Whatever the reason for this, interviews with his parents bring a lot to the table. His father, a retired Green Beret, chokes up a few times while sharing stories about his son, specifically the hard times Nilan faced after the crest of his wave of success (he went as far as winning the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadians) had fallen. Nilan acknowledges that his father’s roughness must have rubbed off on him, but Gibney avoids any suggestion, like the discussions happening in the NFL or boxing, that the nature of hockey itself, specifically Nilan’s role as a player expected to fight others, could be partly responsible for Nilan’s mental difficulties in adapting to his post-career life, which included a divorce, alcoholism, violence, the inability to hold down a job and drug addiction.
Contrary to last year’s excellent Goon, which depicted goons as, deep down, softie romantics, Nilan’s life seems to be driven by a fierce, overriding loyalty to his friends and teammates. In his youth, Nilan had a reputation for beating kids up to protect his friends; as a professional hockey player, he was unwaveringly loyal to his Montreal Canadians team and, after being traded, began to feel lost, even when he ended up playing for the Boston Bruins, his childhood dream. And though his outrageous loyalty ended up getting the best of him when he was finally forced to face the world on his own, his teammates and coach showed appreciation when they helped him rise above being a mere goon, to a player who could pass, shoot, and score—a blessing that Nilan tears up over. It’s a touching scene, and one that proves that The Last Gladiators is more than just action-packed clips and hard-ass stories about a cold, tough sport: The doc makes room for some tender moments of reflection from a guy who, against impossible odds, still managed some victories, the biggest of which may be that he’s still standing.