SBD/February 1, 2013/Media

Former NHLer Chris Nilan Stars In New Documentary About NHL Enforcers

Former NHLer Chris Nilan is the "centerpiece of a compelling documentary called 'The Last Gladiators' that opens in limited theatrical release Friday, then on video on demand Feb. 8," according to Neil Best of NEWSDAY. The initial concept for the movie "was to feature a variety of players known for their willingness -- and ability -- to fight, but director Alex Gibney suggested centering the film on one particularly compelling figure." Nilan, who was nicknamed "Knuckles" during his 13-year career that included stops with the Canadiens, Rangers and Bruins, is a "character almost too good to be true for a documentary filmmaker." Exec Producer Barry Reese said, "What separated Chris from all the other guys is he was totally open, genuine. He was willing to be vulnerable. He wasn't afraid. He gave you everything." Best noted after Nilan retired in '92, he "descended into abuse of alcohol, painkillers and other drugs." When filmmakers "first approached him, he had just finished a treatment program." The "most emotional portion of the documentary is an interview with Nilan's father, Henry, a hard-edged former Green Beret who speaks of his shame at seeing his son hospitalized and addicted" (NEWSDAY, 1/29). USA TODAY's Kevin Allen noted Nilan "brings home the severity of his problem by revealing he has awakened with a drug needle in his arm and that he has survived overdoses." Nilan: "(The documentary) was kind of an extension of my therapy to talk about all of this stuff. It helped me get through some of the things I was trying to get through and helped me stay sober" (USA TODAY, 1/31).

THE REVIEWS ARE IN: In N.Y., Farran Smith Nehme gives the documentary two-and-a-half out of four stars and writes Gibney "deserves credit for making a hockey film that the uninitiated can watch with interest, and for focusing on an issue even some hockey fans can't make up their minds about." Smith Nehme: "But he is awfully coy here. When 'The Last Gladiators' treats brawls like greatest-hits clips for more than half the movie, then suggests fighting is behind Nilan's decline, it feels like trying to have it both ways" (N.Y. POST, 2/1). Also in N.Y., Elizabeth Weitzman gave the film two out of five stars and wrote Gibney has "taken a rare misstep." There is "undoubtedly a great story within the bruised history of NHL enforcers," but why "did he choose Chris Nilan's?" There is "nothing here that proves his worth as a subject." Weitzman: "Mostly, he seems like an arrogant hothead who lucked into a career that allowed him to vent his aggression in legal ways. ... He tells his story honestly, but with no great sense of self-awareness or insight" (, 1/31). The N.Y. TIMES' Nicolas Rapold writes Gibney "scales down his approach considerably here, generally for the better, rather than extrapolate a theory of violence and everything." The film is "very much about a particular part of ice hockey, the heavies rather than the Gretzkies." Rapold: "That also means that the film can at times feel like stories of fights overheard at a bar, complete with the tale of woe" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/1).
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