Tonight was a special night when it came to my month-long sport documentary quest. It was (and will be) the only time I went out to a theatre and watched a film on the big screen.
If you ever get a chance to watch a good doc (sports or not) on the big screen - do it. It's a pretty cool experience.
I have had this movie on the radar for months and was really hoping the stars would align - and boy did they ever. It ended up being one of the most memorable documentary experiences I've ever had.
Tonight's film - The Last Gladiators
Rated: R (drug references and a decent amount of swearing...oh yeah, and hockey violence)
"Academy Award Winning Director Alex Gibney examines the NHL's most feared enforcers while also exploring the career of Chris Nilan." (source: official facebook page)
Saw it in the theatre. If you live in Canada, check it out! It's on a Cross Canada tour right now. More info to come.
Before I get into the film itself, I just want to say that I went to the theatre tonight expecting to watch a sports doc and come home. When I arrived at the theatre, I noticed a little kiosk with a couple huge posters from the film. I walked over to talk to the guy sitting there and that's when I learned of this "Bare Knuckles" tour currently crossing Canada.
In addition to watching the film, there would be a Q&A afterwards with one Chris Nilan.
Now I'm pumped. I can't get to my seat fast enough.
The film opens with a closeup of Chris' hands - his knuckles. As the credits roll, he is describing the game and his role. How much he loved the game. The heart he put into the game. And of course, the injuries he sustained. He's punched a lot of guys, but he's more than just a goon.
There's some great footage of him throughout the film playing in oldtimers games and pickup games. He is quite the character. Caring, but with a sense of "game". Very quickly you have a laugh with him and sit back to enjoy the ride.
We shoot back to when Chris was a kid. His dad was a Green Beret and it was a house of discipline and honesty. That was instilled in Chris early on. He had a passion for hockey and it helped him grow during his early years (he lived in a pretty bad neighbourhood). The pace and tone is quiet as we build into his passion for the NHL.
We then cut away from Chris' story and get into the early enforcers of the NHL, the Bruins of the 60's and 70's - The Big Bad Bruins and the Broad Street Bullies. It became a common idea around the league that an enforcer was needed on a team.
Chris felt that he could play that role on an NHL team. Drafted in the 17th round - 231st out of 235 players picked - he fought everyone while he was down on the farm....and won. He had no fear.
Through some great interviews (like long time Montreal writer Red Fisher, Michael Farber, as well as a plethora of enforcers) the overall picture of enforcers is built. Intercut in it is the story of Chris Nilan.
Montreal is a storied franchise and Nilan wanted to do everything he could to prove his worth and wear the colors proud. He quickly became so good at what he did that the team saw him as a sort of security blanket.
But the "heavyweight champion" of the time was Bob Probert. And much to my surprise, he is interviewed for this doc (they were filming as early as 2008). Again, some great mood is set by the music as Probert describes the anxiety and nervousness before games (he had a tough time sleeping the night before). We also hear from guys like Todd Ewen, Tony Twist, Marty McSorley and Donald Brashear.
While Nilan was more than holding his own as an enforcer, it was coach Claude Ruel that pushed Chris to be more than just this one dimensional player. Chris is very emotional talking about Ruel (as well as guys like Gainey, Robinson, Lemaire) who helped him become a better skater, passer and shooter. He was placed in offensive situations and became a very solid all around player.
In the 85/86 season, Nilan was seen more as a leader and he showed that side of him, helping guide a room full of rookies to the Stanley Cup that year. Sadly, due to an injury, he was unable to play in the Cup clinching game (something I bet he feels a bit bummed about....I forgot to ask him). Again, Chris opens up on camera and is pretty emotional about the accomplishment.
Worshiped by the Montreal fans, Chris becomes more to the community off the ice as well. Constantly going to visit sick kids in hospitals - not because he is obligated to...but because he wanted to. My kind of guy.
Things started to change once Jean Perron came aboard as coach. It's quickly realized that Perron doesn't respect Chris as a player and Nilan reciprocates that right back at the coach. Nilan was frustrated that players (not just him) were being treated unfairly. He decided to be vocal about it and called out the coach publicly. It was the end of Nilan in Montreal.
Shipped off to the New York Rangers, Chris Nilan was devastated. He never has gotten over it. We hear from others as they try to cope with the realization of being phased out of a team...out of the league. For Chris, he lost the passion and loyalty for the game.
Soon after he was traded to Boston - his hometown. He was overwhelmed when he received a huge ovation from the Bruin faithful (whom booed the crap out of him for all those years as a Hab). His hard work landed him on the All-Star team that year (note: Mike Milbury, then coach of the Bruins, picked the team...maybe a little biased). He wasn't able to play due to a bruised foot anyways.
When Milbury was shown the door and Rick Bowness took over behind the bench, the disrespect card reared its ugly head again. A great story about a run in with Rick was one of the best stories in the doc. Soon after that event, he was placed on waivers and Montreal picked him up so he could retire a Hab.
This is where the doc really shifts - life after hockey. We're about two-thirds the way through so it doesn't dominate the film.
Chris tries his hand at selling insurance. "Nah". He became an assistant coach under Lemaire in New Jersey, but had a tough time playing Mr. Nice to Jacques' bad cop role. Nilan, without question, is not a coddler.
Bored, Chris started hanging out at the bar. One hour a day turned to two, and so on. For footage during some of these events, Chris does his own reenactments - and it's done fairly well actually (normally I'm not a fan of them).
His 26 surgeries throughout his career (and after) led him to painkillers....and an addiction to them. He was not being truthful to his family and friends. He would get treatment, but then fall right back into the hole.
At his worst, he was doing heroin, overdosing. It cost him his marriage and damaged his relationship with his family. His father, who was pretty emotional, said he was ashamed of who his kid had turned into. He was arrested for shoplifiting and was in a car accident that nearly killed him.
He then did what a lot of people in that situation don't do - he asked for help. For the next 2 years, he lived in Chinook, Washington getting sober. He returned to Boston, to his kids and his family. At 53, he is fighting again...for his life.
At the end of the film, I felt that Chris was in a much better place than I had expected. He's by no means "out of the woods" as I think he battles the demons everyday. But I feel like he's doing more living now than coping.
Hearing him speak after the film reinforced that feeling. He is very well spoken, but loses his place every so often (not sure if that's due to the drug use, fighting in the NHL or both). Opinionated and with a lot of passion and heart when he speaks, he was as engaging in person as he was shown in the doc.
The film was very well produced with really nice pace and some great archival footage - better than I expected. Apparently, there were issues with the NHL before the film was allowed to be released. They felt the NHL was not being made out in as good alight as it should have been. Some odd compromises were made as a result.
If you get the chance to watch this film - do so. It's a great hockey story, but an equally engaging personal story as well.
Like I said earlier, this film is currently "on tour" along with Chris. They will be in....
Winnipeg - October 15
Vancouver - October 17
Edmonton - October 18
Montreal - October 22
Toronto - October 24
Ottawa - October 25
All involve a Q&A with Chris after the viewing.
4 out of 5 (a solid 4 at that)
Here are some other reviews I found online for the film...
The Hollywood Reporter
Next up - The Endless Summer