Why hockey fans need to see ‘Last Gladiators’

It has been said that when a subject is so overwhelmingly large, a wise journalist’s best bet is to zero in on something small.

Documentary filmmakers are essentially journalists with more expensive cameras and bigger budgets.

And so we have the auteur of The Last Gladiators, Alex Gibney*, beginning his insightful story of fighting in hockey — as cumbersome a sporting topic as you could find — by zooming his lens in on a set of knuckles.

Scarred and battered and nails-tough, retired enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan’s hands have touched up more faces than a Cosmopolitan Photoshop specialist. But where the Academy Award-winning director (for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side) wins is in his drive to dig deep and uncover how all those shots affect the guy throwing them even more than the punching bag jerseyed at the other end.

With apologies to Slap Shot, whose cult status is ironclad and whose replay value is off the charts, Gladiators might just be the best hockey movie made yet.

Anchored by Nilan’s raw candor but supported by a cast two benchfuls deep, the film that first hit festivals in 2011 features an array of interviewees giving a well-rounded view of the five-minute major.

Vintage NHL donnybrook footage is buoyed by vivid tales by pugilists past (Tony Twist, Bob Probert, Marty McSorley, Donald Brashear), hockey writers, plus a litany of Nilan’s teammates from all levels, his family members and his childhood friends. On the surface it’s an examination of the enforcer role and its necessity to the game (“The hockey fan needs fighting; it’s an adrenaline rush”), but Gibney makes it about so much more: drugs, dependence, dream-chasing, death, war, regret and family.

“He’d slap me, then he’d punch me. There were times he’d scare the s— out of me… I think that was his goal,” Nilan — the film’s swinging, bleeding, cussing quote of a hero — says of his father Henry’s way of turning him into a man.

And 3,043 penalty minutes, 110 goals, three trades and one Stanley Cup championship later, it’s Henry himself whom you feel for.

“I was ashamed of him,” Henry says of Chris’s post-NHL spiral, through tears that don’t quite fall.

Amazingly, in a film that shows highlights of big men punching each other in the face, the most visceral moments involve those men sitting still, explaining their motives and mistakes to the camera.

It’s the thuggy Twist who best draws Gibney’s parallel between the addictive nature of fighting and the alcohol and drugs to which Nilan succumbs: “I promise you: there was a twinge in my dick. I enjoyed it that much.”

Guaranteed, you’ll leave with a better understanding of not only why they fight but why adjusting to a life where you can’t settle differences with dropped gloves is such a struggle.

“It’s like putting a tiger in a classroom,” says one of Nilan’s childhood friends. “It’s just not a good idea.”

At one point Nilan inadvertently yet accurately compares The Last Gladiators to a more Disneyfied version of the game.

It meant so much more to him, Knuckles says, to lift the Stanley Cup as a member of the Montreal Canadiens “than if I was a Mighty Duck.”

Watch the preview:

The Last Gladiators: Bare “Knuckles” Tour makes its way through Canada with major-city premieres in advance of the film’s wide release on Oct. 26. Here are the dates.

Oct. 14: Cineplex Odeon Sunridge Spectrum Cinemas, Calgary

Oct. 15: SilverCity Polo Park Cinemas, Winnipeg

Oct. 17: Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas, Vancouver

Oct. 18: Cineplex Odeon South Edmonton Cinemas, Edmonton

Oct. 22: Cinemas StarCité, Montreal

Oct. 24: Cineplex Odeon Yonge and Dundas Cinemas, Toronto

Oct. 25: SilverCity Gloucester Cinemas, Ottawa

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. local for all screenings.

*Gibney, who directed a film about Lance Armstrong’s comeback, is reportedly releasing an ESPN 30 for 30 doc, Catching Hell, that examines the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series.

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