Although it’s taken a bit of a backseat in the past few days to concussions and faulty Soviet aircraft, fighting in hockey remains a hot-button issue. And while I’m sure the TIFF organizers had their lineup of films put together months in advance, the fact that there were two movies about the fine art of hockey pugilism screening today at the festival couldn’t have been much more timely.
The Last Gladiators was a truly great documentary, following the career and post-hockey struggles of ex-Habs enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, while taking a broader look at that side of the game by interviewing tough guys like Terry O’Reilly, Tony Twist and the late Bob Probert. (They also shot footage of Probert’s funeral.) We even got both sides of the McSorely/Brashear incident from the men themselves. Incidentally, when they shot Brashear, he was playing semi-pro hockey in Quebec, and the film crew got access to one of his games, as well as a day in the life of another not-so-famous minor-league fighter.
Nilan himself was in attendance, even for the 9:15 am second screening of the film. Walking on crutches, you could tell he’s had a rough time, but he was just as dynamic in person as when you saw him on film. He even showed a bit of distaste for Gary Bettman, who he feels is trying to take fighting out of hockey, warning that if you take it out of the game–and piss off all those Canadians and the American rednecks who watch hockey–it’ll be hard to put it back in.
My second screening of the day was a big premiere event, though hardly a black-tie affair. The movie Goon, directed by Michael Dowse of FUBAR fame (fuckin’ giver eh!) is based on the autobiography of real-life minor-league scrapper Doug “The Thug” Smith and stars Seann William Scott of American Pie fame in the leading role. Though I haven’t read the book, it’s safe to say that Dowse and the crew did their homework after having seen a documentary about the real deal. At one point, the antagonist Ross Rhea (a tribute to Rob Ray, perhaps?) is suspended for a McSorely-like stick-swinging incident, and there is definitely a Gretzky/McSorely relationship between Scott and Marc-André Grondin, who stars as a cocky, Ovechkin-inspired Québecois star player who’s lost his touch after suffering a big hit to the head. (Sidney Crosby, anyone?)
Although the on-ice action is pretty true-to-life, the locker-room and bus-ride scenes pay homage to Slap Shot while clearly showing that this movie was directed by the same guy who did FUBAR. Some of the supporting cast, like the pill-popping goalie from Saskatchewan and the two wisecracking Russians are pure comic gold!
For the record, I gave The Last Gladiators a perfect five points on my People’s Choice ballot, while Goon got a four. Great movie, but sometimes there ain’t nothing like the real thing, and The Last Gladiators is worthy of the People’s Choice Award in my humble opinion.