The reviews have started to come in for the new documenatary on NHL enforcers that focuses on the life of former Habs winger Chris Nilan at length — and they are generally pretty good, with Nilan himself getting much of the praise. Directed by award-winning filmaker Alex Gibney, “The Last Gladiators” is currently being premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter calls Nilan “a compellingly rough-hewn central figure,” and believes the film should have focused even more on him, saying that by trying to cover too much ground and too many fighters, it loses some steam. Others touched on in the film include Donald Brashear, Tony Twist and Marty McSorley.
Rooney writes of Nilan, “There’s a certain poetry in this scrappy guy finding a place where his brawling tendencies were an asset. But when that channel was closed off to him, professional indirection and personal missteps led him from alcohol to painkillers to heroin….
“The film aims to breathe sad nobility into its portrait of the obsolete warrior unsure what to do with his fighting instincts out in the real world. There’s no shortage of pathos in Nilan’s story. While details of his marriage and divorce appear to have been taken off the table for discussion, he is an articulate and candid subject, speaking freely about his mistakes and his struggle to overcome his demons. Nilan’s father, a classic Boston-Irishman with a hard-ass demeanor and an unembarrassed emotional streak, is also quite moving, acknowledging the shame he felt after his son’s wave had crested and the downward spiral began.
“Nilan’s post-NHL life continues to evolve as he pursues new opportunities, which might be satisfying enough as a conclusion had Gibney kept the focus tighter. But he spends so much time and detail on other enforcers that the power of the core drama is diluted and the film feels baggy even at 94 minutes. The chief weakness of The Last Gladiatorsis that plural in the title. It might play well with ESPN obsessives, but in attempting to honor an entire generation of battle-scarred tough guys, the filmmakers shortchange the man who should be the heart of their story.”
On The New York Times blog “Arts Beat,” Michael Cieply writes, “The jolt comes from Mr. Gibney’s portrayal of the enforcers’ post-hockey existence. Much of The Last Gladiators follows Mr. Nilan from the let-down of his retirement, through alcoholism, painkiller abuse, heroin addiction and, finally, painful rehab. On Thursday, the audience laughed along with Mr. Nilan’s vulgar description of encounters with hockey foes and his own coaches — one of whom he deliberately beaned with a puck, requiring a long string of stitches — only to fall silent as Mr. Nilan described his own disintegration.”
Cieply calls the film one of a few new “movies that find dark edges in our lighter moments (and) promise an unusually complicated season.” Which sounds like praise to me.
Ryan Crockett in Reel Talk calls it “a story that is profound, interesting, funny, and moving.”
Jim Soltek in The Toronto Sun gave the film 3 1/2 stars.
Not all reviewers liked the film. John Semley in The Torontoist gave it one star.
Anthony Kaufman in Screen Daily has some of the same criticisms that Rooney did in The Hollywood Reporter, that the film might appeal more to sports fans than a general audience. But he adds, “Give Gibney credit for making a sports documentary that doesn’t end on a triumphant note, comparing maladjusted retired hockey players to men coming home from war.”
Adam Naymani in Cinema Scope called it “scattershot and finally incoherent…a Hockey Night in Canada between-periods profile stretched to feature length,” and finds it exploitive.
The audience in Toronto did not agree. Nilan spoke after a screening of the film at the festival last week, the first time he had seen the finished product, and The Philadelphia Daily News reported he got a standing ovation, and cried “like a baby.” Howard Gensler wrote, “Flyers fans would have loved it.”
Gibney’s film is one of three with a hockey theme at the festival, the others being “Goon,” the fictional story of a gentle-spirited hockey enforcer, and “Breakaway,” whose cast includes Rob Lowe as coach of a team of Sikh-Canadians and the adversity they face playing in Toronto. Gibney himself played hockey in high school and college.