Alternately brutal and graceful, as befits its subject, Alex Gibney’s pro-hockey docu “The Last Gladiators” sports a slew of archival goon-fight footage and has an indelibly articulate central figure in recovering enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. Alas, the filmmaker’s choice to have the former Montreal Canadiens champ share ice time with several contempo players results in a pic that tends to cut away from Nilan just when it ought to be skating in for a closer look. Nevertheless, Gibney’s “Gladiators” remains entertaining and illuminating, a pic with the muscle to score smallscreen goals while shoving competing jock docs into the boards.
Besides filling the need for a sharp documentary about a widely misunderstood game, the hyper-prolific Gibney has done a bang-up job of detailing the physical and psychological ravages of pro sportsmanship. Nilan, a native Bostonian who played for the Bruins late in his NHL career, opens his battered hands for Gibney’s inspection, and his heart as well. Speaking candidly of his temper tantrums, his professional fall from grace, and his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, the player who logged some 3,000 penalty-box minutes in 13 years, through dozens of surgeries, appears permanently hardened but determined to achieve redemption.
On the surface, this might seem an unusual project for Gibney, whose docus — including “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” — have generally favored political subjects. But “The Last Gladiators” proves ideal for allowing Gibney to explore his subsidiary interest in masculinity operating at the extremes of what’s socially permissible. While Nilan was worshipped by rabid fans for generously giving expression to their less savory fantasies, the enforcer’s aggression eventually moved past the sanctioned field of play, taking its toll on Nilan and a number of those around him.
In between vintage hockey clips and glimpses of the player trash-talking his way through a 2010 “old-timers’ game,” Nilan recounts his run-ins with the law and altercations with colleagues, including the arch-nemesis coach whom he half-accidentally gave eight stitches in the head. The tough guy tears up when discussing some subjects — including his father, a former Green Beret who instilled in him an early desire to fight, and the Canadiens’ 1986 Stanley Cup win, the height of his career.
Myriad other talking heads, from sports commentators to Nilan’s former teammates, enable Gibney to expand his film’s focus beyond Nilan to the now-diminished culture of hockey enforcing — a zoom-back strategy that works well except when the docu unduly interrupts the Nilan narrative with intermittent mini-portraits of lesser players such as Paul Shantz, Tommy Twist and Donald Brashear. The pic’s flow suffers as well from an overabundance of pithy intertitles, although the editing within each segment — including comic-relief clips from the immortal “Slap Shot” — is both brisk and incisive.
The visual texture of snippets from decades-old games is understandably splotchy, but the pic’s tech package makes it into the net anyway, with classic-rock tunes and David Kahne’s score adding drama to the real-life action.