This sports docu from the National Film Board of Canada, currently making a small theatrical run, will certainly appeal to viewers interested in boxing arcana. But “The Last Round” is also a beautifully polished time capsule, packed with info about a culture long gone but still informing the world we in which we live. Breezily assembled pic deserves some life on fest circuit before finding its niche in the ring with other sports-history DVDs.
“Every fight is the intersection of two stories,” someone says at the beginning of the film, expertly helmed by Joseph Blasioli (best known for “Blast ‘Em,” about paparazzi on the move). Indeed, the film takes up parallel tales, one widely known, the other barely remembered, and only by select Canadians of a certain age. The saga of Muhammad Ali, the Louisville slugger who started as Cassius Clay and, after conversion to the Nation of Islam and taking on the U.S. government, went on to become the most widely recognized man on the planet is the familiar part. But it gains new (and in some ways geopolitical) resonance when put up against a different kind of bootstraps narrative, involving a big-jawed, flat-faced kid from Toronto and his quest to take on the big and brawny.
The son of Eastern-European immigrants — how did it affect the boy’s psyche that his mother plucked chickens and his father worked on the killing floor of a packing plant? — George Chuvalo got his first gloves at the age of 7, and relentlessly negotiated his way to the heavyweight title from that day on.
Despite countless setbacks (actually, pic does count them) Chuvalo was determined to get out of the Canadian backwater and into the ring with fighters like Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson before taking on the Greatest in 1966, at the height of Vietnam and Ali’s love-hate affair with the American public. Toronto eventually became a desired retreat to the beleaguered champ, who comes across as both slyly self-serving and — in the pic’s most touching moment — genuinely moved to discover an enclave of white people who aren’t seething with prejudice.
Many cigars are chomped in the course of interviews with old-timers like columnist Jimmy Breslin, trainer Angelo Dundee, and Rachman Ali, the champ’s brother. (It’s a notable, if understandable, shame that the palsied Ali himself doesn’t appear here.) But the main attraction is the mountain of crisp, black-and-white footage unearthed by Blasioli and given shape by Globe and Mail newswriter Stephen Brunt.
The mix of period music, apt tunes by the Tragically Hip and other spunky Canucks, and Allan Kane’s beatnik-jazz score helps give the material a freshness that puts viewers right where the sweat is flying, and dreams of glory still seem new.