Description from TIFF 2011 catalog by Thom Powers:
Chris “Knuckles” Nilan can chart his hockey career by his scars. He earned those stripes as one the NHL’s fiercest enforcers, throwing punches to defend his teammates. While playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the mid-eighties, his fights racked up penalty minutes but received roaring approval from fans and helped win the Stanley Cup. When injuries forced Nilan to retire in 1992, he faced a new battle: how do you stop being a gladiator and re-enter normal society?
Director Alex Gibney, who played hockey as a youth, comes to Nilan’s story with an admiration for the game and its masters. While interviewing NHL greats, Gibney found himself drawn to Nilan, and uncovered a sensitive side behind the tough exterior. The Last Gladiators succeeds at connecting to both hockey fans and outsiders by taking a nuanced look at Nilan’s career and the legacy of enforcers.
In the film, Nilan recounts the ups and downs of his life with poignancy. As an Irish kid in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, he learned the law of streets: never back down, never stay down. He idolized the finesse of Boston Bruins’ star Bobby Orr. But he knew that his only way into the big leagues was with his fists. Nilan started as an enforcer but soon learned to be a complete player. Yet, his reputation as a fighter made him a target for kids who wanted to make names for themselves.
His legendary fights took their toll, sending him to the hospital for twenty six surgeries. Leaving the league in his mid-thirties, he had difficulty adjusting to desk jobs and gave in to addictions. Now he takes one day at a time and looks back on his glory days with a mixture of joy and regret.
Gibney has a knack for exploring flawed characters, as he displayed in Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Though rooted in hockey, The Last Gladiators raises wider questions about the bloodlust in our culture and how we treat our warriors when the battle is over.
About the director:
Alex Gibney was born in New York and studied at Yale University before attending UCLA Film School. His works as director include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (05), for which he received an Academy Award&”174; nomination for best documentary feature, The Human Behavior Experiments (06), Taxi to the Dark Side (07), which won the Academy Award&”174; for best documentary feature, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (10) and The Last Gladiators (11).