THE STORY – From Olympic Gold medalist to World Heavyweight champion, boxer George Foreman leads a remarkable life. He finds his faith, retires and becomes a preacher. When financial hardship hits his family and church, George steps back in the ring and regains the championship at age 45, becoming the oldest heavyweight champion in boxing history.
THE CAST – Khris Davis, Jasmine Mathews, John Magaro, Sullivan Jones, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Sonja Sohn & Forest Whitaker
THE TEAM – George Tillman Jr. (Director/Writer) & Frank Baldwin (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
Few heavyweight champions have had quite as event-filled a life and career as the man affectionately known as Big George Foreman. In trouble with the law in his early years, Foreman soon changed his ways and went on to excel in any number of arenas, as an Olympic Gold Medalist, heavyweight champion of the world at age 24, ordained Christian minister, heavyweight champion of the world (again!) at age 45 (the oldest champ in history), TV boxing analyst, successful entrepreneur, and beloved TV pitchman. This is a life that seems tailor-made for the movies, or so you’d think.
That such a colorful career could be depicted in an equally flat and uninspiring manner as “Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World” (the film’s full title that will only be used this once) is especially surprising, given that its director is George Tillman, Jr. In both his “Barbershop” series of films and recently in the terrific “The Hate U Give,” Tillman was skillfully able to strike that elusive balance between humor and a quiet emotional force that sneaks up on an audience. These two key elements are sadly missing here.
Rather than choosing to reveal the many facets of Foreman’s character by focusing on a single portion of his life (let’s say, either his ministry or boxing careers), Tillman and co-screenwriter Frank Baldwin have fallen back on telling his entire life story in just over two hours, a foolhardy task. Even Foreman’s most consequential moments — the break-up of his first marriage, for example — are dealt with by one or two cliche-filled confrontations, and then it’s onto the next big event. In its insistence on trying to cover almost every major incident in his life, “Big George Foreman” winds up being a mile wide and an inch deep.
In that sense, this film suffers from some of the same problems that recently beset another long-titled biopic, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” which also took a “greatest hits” approach to its subject’s life and felt equally lacking in emotional impact. Still, the Whitney film was held together by a charismatic lead performance at its center. Here, Khris Davis, who portrays Foreman from his early youth to his post-ring career, is convincing in the film’s most physically demanding scenes, but the film’s anemic script has left him with little to do in the dramatic moments. Similarly, the women in the film are primarily left stranded, most relegated to the thinly-drawn and redundant roles of wives and mothers.
To be sure, the film is not without its virtues. Forest Whitaker shrewdly plays Foreman’s trainer Doc Broadus in a lower key than most of the mayhem around him, a choice that gives his few eruptions an extra dramatic punch (Michael K. Williams was set to play the Broadus role but died before production began). And Sullivan Jones captures the showman side of Muhammad Ali, earning big laughs right when the film needs it most and excelling when demonstrating Ali’s classic “rope-a-dope” technique that wound up exhausting Foreman in their championship fight. The Ali scenes, however, are the sole boxing sequences that genuinely crackle. It’s not that the fight choreography is poor; it’s reasonably fine, if a bit ordinary. But, coming so soon after Michael B. Jordan’s dazzling ring work in “Creed III,” comparisons are inevitable and unfortunate.
“Big George Foreman” is produced by Affirm Films, the Christian-based wing of Sony, and one good thing about the script is that it never descends into proselytizing, a trait that has hobbled a number of other faith-based films. The Christian message is certainly there, particularly in the sequences in which Foreman leaves boxing to become an ordained Christian minister; fortunately, Tillman and Baldwin slide it into the real-life events of the film quite naturally, which is — in its own way — one of the film’s few saving graces.
Foreman executive produced the film, which may explain why absolutely every facet of his life seems to be here (Curiously, the one element by which many Americans know him best, the George Foreman grill, is only given a one-sentence throwaway reference, even though it earned the champ $138 million and saved his business). Even after the film careens from one event to another for over two hours, as the credits rolled, audience members have merely visited George Foreman but have never really gotten to know him. Clearly, he was a fighter who forged his own path and was never afraid to take chances. Now, if only the film of his life had been so brave.