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Alex Gibney's 'The Last Gladiators' hits as hard as it's subjects

Documentarian Alex Gibney takes a look at the NHL enforcer, and particularly Chris Nilan, in The Last Gladiators.

Chris Nilan stars in Alex Gibney's documentary about his life.
Chris Nilan stars in Alex Gibney's documentary about his life.
Jeff Freedman

Alex Gibney's The Last Gladiators is released on demand in the U.S. tomorrow, Feb. 8. It is currently in theaters in New York City, and is expected to be in theaters in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh later this month.

Documentarian Alex Gibney is a man who likes to show us a different side of our commonly accepted villains. The three films of his that I've seen most recently -- Catching Hell, on Steve Bartman, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, on Jack Abramoff, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer -- all use this tactic. They try to find the sympathetic, while not diminishing the damage done (at least in the case of the latter two -- get over it, Cubs fans) and trying to make a three-dimensional character out of what is typically thought to be an obvious villain. Bartman could've been anybody, Abramoff's just a product of a corrupt system, Spitzer... well, the guy liked what he liked.

It makes sense, in that case, that Gibney would make his way around to the hockey enforcer, a character that personifies the dichotomy of good and bad better than any other position in sport. These monsters, these almost circus-like strongmen are often the most beloved players on their clubs by large portions of the fan base. At least they were until more recent years, when we've seen the effects of what these fights do to these mere mortals. Up until about the 2004-05 lockout, however, a good goon would be one of the most well liked guys on the team. Chris Nilan was one of those guys.

Nilan is a cult hero in Montreal, if The Last Gladiators is any indication. For good reason, too: Nilan had a little bit of hockey chops in him beyond the pugilism. He scored 21 goals in a season once, and 19 in 1985-86, when he helped the Canadiens to their 23rd Stanley Cup victory. He was (controversially) selected to play in the 1991 NHL All-Star Game, and amassed over 3,000 penalty minutes in a 13-year career. A jovial guy with a mean streak and a Boston accent, it's hard not to like him and simultaneously be afraid.

But while Nilan is the main focus of The Last Gladiators, but the enforcer position itself is it's main character. Tony Twist, Terry O'Reilly, Marty McSorely and the late Bob Probert are all interviewed and also given vignettes that explore their careers and their lives post-hockey. It might be the lone flaw of the film, in my opinion. The movie can't quite decide whether it wants to be a character study on Nilan, or a probe into the world of hockey goons. It's difficult to do that, certainly, when you have interviews in it with Probert. You can't do this movie without addressing his passing, but it certainly takes you out of what is an interesting A-story.

When the movie focuses on Chris Nilan and Chris Nilan alone, however, it's a real winner. I can't recommended it enough. It is, at times, hilarious, insightful and heartbreaking. Nilan, a few teammates, childhood friends, and his entire family -- including his own father, who tears up at times during the interview sessions -- provides exactly what Gibney does with his other films: a three-dimensional portrait of someone who you already came into the film with pre-conceived notions of, or at least of his profession.

This film is often tough to watch, in a good way. The arcs of the interviews are fascinating in themselves. Take Nilan's father, who goes from professing he doesn't understand his son, to shame over Chris' drug addiction (he is now sober), to tears wondering if his life could've gone differently without the influence of hockey. Nilan, in an interview for our podcast, denies this and says he'd have become what he was regardless of profession, but you can never look away from Nilan's heartbroken father, and entire family for that matter.

I've already sort of spoiled the fact that Nilan is sober, and is doing well starting a career in radio. That doesn't necessarily mean the movie itself has a happy ending, but knowing that he himself does won't ruin the picture. If you laughed uproariously at Goon last year, The Last Gladiators might make the most interesting double feature partner for it possible. It covers all the bases, provides interesting character arcs, and connects you to an interesting character, without judging him. I recommend checking it out.