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The Last Gladiators

2011 | 94 min | R

The Last Gladiators


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Theatrical release date

 13 February, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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The Last Gladiators Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, February 15, 2013

Last year saw the release of “Goon,” a hockey comedy (starring Seann William Scott and Liev Schreiber) that took special interest in the job of the enforcer, a man recruited to provide violent protection for players, picking fights with anyone to claim dominance on and off the ice. It’s a genuinely funny picture with an amusing ugliness, but there’s an undeniable dark side to the profession that wasn’t illuminated in full. Director Alex Gibney picks up the slack with “The Last Gladiators,” a sobering documentary on the true price of this NHL fight club, featuring interviews with a few of its most notorious participants.

Working without help from the NHL (now there’s a shocker), Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”) collects a few of the game’s most recognized goons for an inspection of their lives and growth as hockey combatants. We meet the likes of Chris Nilan, Tony Twist, and Marty McSorley -- tough guys who built a reputation on violence, working overtime to prove their worth on the ice. For the first hour, Gibney does an impressive job covering these careers, with special attention paid to Nilan, who gives himself over completely to the documentary, showing refreshing candor about his career and personal history. While there’s not a wide range of participants to fully reflect the sweep of aggression that swallowed the game throughout the 20th century, Gibney tackles his points smartly, laboring to communicate the thrill of combat and the shock of retirement.

Of course, no kid wants to grow up to be an enforcer. With these gentlemen, their hockey dreams were filled with goal-scoring and major playing time, working on their skills to become the best of the best, on teams that could make the leap and become Stanley Cup champions. For Nilan, his quest to follow in Bobby Orr’s footsteps and play with his hometown team, the Boston Bruins, was disrupted, soon finding himself with the Montreal Canadiens. Without raw talent, Nilan was left with a love for the game and an abyssal reservoir of hostility, born from a tempestuous relationship with his father. Using the rage to start fights, Nilan built an impressive career of intimidation, using his fists to control the ice, leaving opponents cowering in fear. A child-like fellow who firmly believes in a cycle of mutual respect, Nilan happily recounts his years pummeling fellow players, riding a reputation as a provocateur to Canadian glory.

“The Last Gladiators” probes the psychology of the enforcers, trying to make sense out of the violence and how the men benefited from such bad behavior. Twist can still taste the blood as he recalls his prime years of punishment, happily engaging in fights to secure his place on the St. Louis Blues, though he can barely conceal his disappointment with his sudden exit from the game, unceremoniously dumped when team indifference coupled with a motorcycle accident left him with nothing to show for his years. McSorley’s history is even more drastic, with criminal charges brought against him in 2000 after a slashing incident with fellow goon Donald Brashear (who looks as though he was forced to appear in the documentary), resulting in the end of his career. Also considered is the physical price paid for years of abuse, with missing teeth, separated shoulders, and smashed hands taking their toll on the players, leaving them a wreck, though far from the self-pitying type. In fact, most of these guys wear their crushed bones as a badge of honor.

“The Last Gladiators” changes direction in its final act, returning focus to Nilan, tracing the resolution of his career in the NHL and his eventual tumble into unemployment, chemical abuse, and criminal mishaps. It’s not a pretty picture, yet Nilan remains tenacious as ever, communicating his mistakes and the effect they’ve had on his loved ones, while trying to reclaim a life of hockey in one form or another. Admittedly, it’s a sharp tonal turn the documentary doesn’t recover from, but the honesty is enlightening, helping to understand the addictive personalities drawn to the game and to the job of enforcing, mixing the thrill of aggression (and its ultimate facade of masculinity) with the cold reality of life off the ice.

Director: Alex Gibney

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