The full title of the George Foreman biopic provides a not-so-subtle clue as to the film’s prosaicness. The movie about Jake LaMotta vividly signaled the personality of its lead character with Raging Bull. The one about Rocky Graziano jauntily indicated its upbeat nature with Somebody Up There Likes Me. So what does Foreman merit? Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World. It sounds like the title of a biography for young readers, and that’s pretty much how the by-the-numbers film plays.
It’s not surprising that Affirm Films is one of the film’s producers, since Foreman famously underwent a religious epiphany and became a born-again Christian. He retired from boxing for many years and became a minister, preaching first on street corners before becoming working at a Houston church. He also opened a youth community center, and, as the film portrays it, only resumed his boxing career to support the center after discovering that his financial manager had lost most of his money.
Big George Foreman
The Bottom Line
The film directed by George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, The Hate U Give) dutifully covers the biographical bases of the life of its subject, strongly played by Khris Davis (Judas and the Black Messiah). It covers Foreman’s poverty-stricken youth, during which he struggled with anger issues; his signing up for the Job Corps, where he met his mentor and future trainer Doc Broadus (Forest Whitaker, in the part that was originally going to be played by Michael K. Williams before the actor’s untimely death); his winning a gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics; and his professional career, which included such historic bouts as the title fight with Joe Frazier in which he became heavyweight champion and the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in which he succumbed to Muhammad Ali’s brilliant “rope-a-dope” strategy.
A few years after that defeat, Foreman collapsed in his dressing room after a fight and apparently had a near-death experience that inspired his spiritual rebirth. But that chapter, while certainly the film’s raison d’etre, proves less interesting than the segment concerning his attempted comeback at a weight and age when most boxers would happily be settling into rocking chairs. Every boxing film has the inevitable training montage, but the one presented here proves very amusing. And also quite realistic, as judging by the real-life photos depicting Foreman’s strenuous training presented during the end credits.
Foreman had an interesting life and career, but, at least as portrayed here, is not a very interesting central character in an episodic drama that feels schematic at every turn and moves so speedily through its subject’s life that little of it makes a vivid impression. It’s not surprising that the film most comes to life in the scenes featuring a wisecracking Ali, played by a charismatic Sullivan Jones, who perfectly captures the boxer’s humorously cocky persona. (The actors briefly playing Howard Cosell and Johnny Carson don’t fare nearly as well.)
Davis does an impressive job in the title role, including undergoing a startling physical transformation to portray the older Foreman, who tipped the scales at over 300 pounds. The actor’s imposing physicality has already been on display onstage, when he played a character loosely based on Jack Johnson in the play The Royale at Lincoln Center (he also recently played Biff in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman), and he’s fully convincing here as a pugilist known for his killer punch.
But he’s hamstrung by having to mostly play Foreman in his more emotionally closed-off period, before he became a beloved pitchman for his eponymous grill. (You wait for the moment when a banker approvingly comments to him about “that funny little grill deal you signed.”) Whitaker offers solid support as the loyal trainer who first broaches the subject of teaching boxing to a young, adrift Foreman by pitching, “You big enough and ugly enough. Wanna learn it?” The Oscar-winning actor also has a great moment when his hangdog-faced Broadus reacts to Foreman’s announcement that he’s found God and is leaving boxing.
Much like Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (another Sony biopic with an ungainly title), Big George Foreman isn’t bad exactly, merely serviceable. You keep waiting for it to deliver a knockout blow that never comes.
Production companies: Affirm Films, Mandalay Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, State Street Pictures
Distributor: Sony Pictures Entertainment
Cast: Khris Davis, Forest Whitaker, Jasmine Mathews, Sullivan Jones, Lawrence Guilliard Jr., John Magaro, Sonja Sohn
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Screenwriters: Frank Baldwin, George Tillman Jr.
Producer: David Zelon
Executive producers: George Foreman, Peter Guber, Wendy S. Williams, Henry Holmes
Directors of photography: John Matysiak, David Tattersall
Production designer: Clay A. Griffith
Editors: Alex Blatt, Craig Hayes
Composer: Marcelo Zarvos
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Casting: Lindsay Graham Ahanonu, Mary Vernieu
2 hour 9 minutes