Nilan steals show in new film


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.


  1. zak says:

    The habs should bring him in as an ambassador for the team. Team990 should have brought him in on their team. Enjoyed his analysis when cjad brought him on air. The ultimate team player.

  2. Habfan4lfe says:

    Nilan was a class act the whole time he was with us. I miss him actually, he wasn’t a goon, he could fight though and score goals. More than I can say for the GOONS that skate the ice these days. He also never did cheapshots unlike big classless acts like Chara.

  3. TheLogician says:

    i had the fortune of attending the premiere on Friday night. a couple thoughts…

    Chris Nilan is a hab to the bone. I commented on this over pre-drinks with friends and they had their doubts (“he played for home town bruins”, etc.). it is glaringly obvious in the movie, from his comment that it just didn’t feel right wearing a different jersey to the C-H tatoo on his arm to his waving a habs sweater in front of his grandson while saying “blue red white” in hypnotist fashion. he loved, and still loves, that team and they loved him.

    on the latter, there were interesting bits about Lemaire giving him extra time and guidance after practice, which was soon picked up by Gainey (“helped me with my stride”) and Robinson. clearly they recognized his desire to help the team and, in return, the wanted to help him. if it weren’t for that puck to peron’s head, he would’ve been there for a second cup in ’93. at least he got to retire a hab.

    the movie itself is good on its own, great if you’re a hockey fan, and totally fantastic if you love the habs. the audience was appreciative. only saw one jersey. a couple ex-NHL’ers were in the audience as well…mathieu schneider and tony twist were in front of me, and i saw smolinski aftewards. i also overheard Chris telling someone that he has recently moved back to montreal with his girlfriend.

    i recommend seeing it if you get the chance. and i also recommend that the habs try to add a few more guys with Nilan’s love for the game and the bleu blanc rouge to their roster.

  4. habs-hampton says:

    So… does anyone know where/when/how we can see this film?

  5. HardHabits says:

    Wow. I suspected it but nobody really ever admitted or disclosed it. It was always painkillers. It’s sad to see that Nilan, after all he’s been through has to contend with Heroin withdrawal now as well.

    Nilan is very brave to come forward because the social stigma of being or having been a Heroin user is heavy in society. Musicians can get away with not being tainted too badly by it because theirs is often times an image of rebellion and drug induced excess, but pro athletes, especially good old white North American hockey players, are something of social entities to emulate or look up to. These guys are probably the squeakiest clean of all NA pro sports. Up to now that is.

    After the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak this is just another hush-hush moment to further drive the NHL’s head into the sand.

    It could take a purge at the NHL head office not unlike the purge that we Habs fans saw to our very own team to set the NHL and hockey right. I would certainly welcome it!!!

  6. slychard says:

    Ps always loved Nilan. If his flick plays in key west I will not miss seeing it. He’s one of the Bostonian we can be proud of. I lived in mass 5 years, met and shook his massive hand at old garden during 94… Wonder if he was smacked out then?

  7. slychard says:

    Rob Lowe, in a Sikh- Canadian hockey team facing adversity, in Toronto no less? How totally uninteresting. No. I’d rather watch a chick-flick like, “the year of the ovulation” or whatever. Blind AND deafen me before torturing me with that sort of bullsquag Hollywood … If I go on with this thought I will be not only deleted but barred from this site. So, as decorum slowly seeps back into my very being I bid you all a good day.

  8. Habitant in Surrey says:

    …PS Mike …noted Your mini game-blog of the Rookie Camp on the previous thread
    …for Me, as You know, I am always enthusiastically interested reading about the new-blood perculating within Our system …and is why I bothered Yourself last season to give Robert Rice a niche on Our prospects in HIO
    …this season I also hope You and Dave will include even more in-depth game reports and Player-updates down on ‘the farm’, in Hamilton, especially
    …an addition that I firmly feel would only add additional ‘hits’ for HIO

    Habitant means PASSIONATE HOCKEY

  9. Habitant in Surrey says:

    …Mike, I always have a soft-spot for a sports journalist whom is not shy to quote TS Eliot
    …’Mike Boone, the Sports Journalist’ ? …hmmm …sounds good, doesn’t it ?
    …run with it Mike …and, hope Your next 10,000 columns are as good as Your first

    Habitant means PASSIONATE HOCKEY

  10. otter649 says:

    Photo looks abit like Terry Fox…..

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