A film review by Craig J. Koban July 13, 2023


The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World jj

2023, PG-13, 129 mins.


Khris Davis as George Foreman Jasmine Mathews as Mary Joan  /   Sullivan Jones as Muhammad Ali  Lawrence Gilliard Jr. as Archie Moore  /  John Magaro as Desmond  /  Forest Whitaker as Doc Broadus  /  Sonja John as Nancy Foreman 

Directed by George Tillman Jr. Written by Tillman and Frank Baldwin

George Foreman's career made so many bizarre twists and turns that I doubt even the craziest Hollywood script doctors could have dreamt them up.  

Just consider this: 

He went from an impoverished childhood to a boxing wanna-be to 1968 Olympic Gold medallist in lightning fast ascension.  He then scored a shocking 1973 second round knock-out of then undefeated and seemingly unbeatable heavyweight champion Joe Fraizer.  At the top of his form, Foreman lost his championship to Muhammad Ali in the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974.  After that, he failed to secure another title shot and, with a brutal loss to Jimmy Young in 1977, he retired...but then became a born again Christian and an ordained minister.  When he hit financial rock bottom, Foreman decided to launch an unexpected comeback at an alarmingly old 45.  In 1994, he scored a shocking win over then champ Michael Moore, becoming the oldest to win the belt ever.  

Oh, and let's not forget those grills that he pedaled on TV.   

To quote its full title, BIG GEORGE FOREMAN: THE MIRACULOUS STORY OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD is four movies for the price of one: It's a boxing movie, yes, but it's also a faith based conversion saga, a tale of redemption and an inspirational-drama about overcoming massive odds to achieve ultimate victory.  Directed with workmanlike affection by George Tillman Jr., BIG GEORGE FOREMAN has all the obligatory elements that have typified sports dramas and biopics for years on end, and it pays rightful tribute to an extraordinary athlete who had a most extraordinary career (and career transition).  The film also features a very committed performance by Khris Davis in the titular role, having the tricky assignment of playing this pugilist icon at various stages of his life.  

What BIG GEORGE FOREMAN lacks, though, is any tangible edge.  

This is such a vanilla bland biopic that goes through every perfunctory beat in the genre playbook.  There's really nothing of huge substance here that separates BIG GEORGE FOREMAN from an over-crowded and familiar genre pack, and when Tillman isn't going heavy handed with the material, the rest of the remaining film feels sluggish and dull.  Foreman is such a fascinating sports personality and one of the most iconic figures in pro sports that deserves an equally compelling and full-bodied film treatment, but this one is achingly soft pedaled as far as fact-based human interest stories go.



The opening sections of the film are perhaps its most interesting, as it explores the life of young George living in abject poverty with his loving and supporting mother, Nancy (Sonja Sohn), and siblings.  He's teased mercilessly at school because of his appearance in tattered clothing and barely anything of substance in his lunch, but he's more than able to physically defend himself against hostile bullies that soon learn never to pick on him ever again.  Despite the daily grind and economic and social hardships that befall him, young George perseveres, and the film then segues to his young adult years (now played by Davis) and he finds a mentor figure in Doc Broadus (and nicely understated Forest Whitaker), who acknowledges that God gave George a pair of iron fists and a drive that could serve him well as a boxer.  Slowly, but surely, Doc teaches George the ways of the ring, and his protégée gets so enraptured by the sport that he sets his sights on Olympic glory, which Doc tells him is "several years away."  Cue a title card that states "one year later" and Big George has overcome all expectations of him to become an Olympic Gold medallist, marking his first major triumph of his difficult life.  His ultra-conservative-minded mamma, though, despises his in-ring pursuits.   

Despite the less than kind support of Nancy, George and Doc dig deep into ambitious ground by climbing the professional ranks.  George has become notorious for his massive haymakers that deal out lethal damage, and the aforementioned Joe Fraizer would feel them the hard way, paving the way to George's first heavyweight title victory.  During this time, George courted and married Paula (Shein Mompremier), but the excesses of wealth and fame led to his womanizing ways.  He then faced his first serious professional setback with his loss to Ali in 1974 (which is way, way better covered in the 1997 documentary WHEN WE WERE KINGS), which begins a downward spiral for George on multiple levels.  His wife left him for infidelity and, to make matters worse, he had a near death experience after his brutal beatdown by Jimmy Young.  This spawns his spiritual conversion into a Christian and abandoning boxing forever to be a preacher.  Unfortunately, George left his wealth in the hands of an old school pal who invested it riskily and left the former champ penniless.  Desperate for cash, George stages a comeback.  No one gives him a chance in hell of making it.  He proved everyone wrong and the rest is history.

It's continually worth mentioning that Foreman's life story is endlessly compelling.  Two heavyweight championships in two vastly different decades of his life.  Former acclaimed Olympian (and within a year of starting the sport...astounding).  Devout preacher.  Cooking product pitchman.  There's not a lot that this man hasn't done on the planet.  BIG GEORGE FOREMAN wisely understands the obvious rags to riches traits of his story, and he certainly grew up poor in violent and racially charged times in America.  One early scene in the film is fairly heartbreaking, during which time the young teenage George (played by Austin David Jones) has to watch his mother carve one hamburger into multiple portions so that everyone in the family could eat that night.  His school yard harassment in later scenes would help cement George's steely-eyed will and perseverance to rise above the indignities he and his family faced and do something with his life.  Rather pointedly, BIG GEORGE FOREMAN also points out that young George was not to be trifled with and had a temper that could be easily triggered with the least provocation.  In one telling scene (while in the Job Corps), he discovers that a fellow recruit stole the Converse sneakers that his mother sent him. You really do believe that he's gonna utterly decimate this kid if he doesn't get those shoes back.   

BIG GEORGE FOREMAN makes some valiant attempts at political commentary as well, in particular his winning of Olympic gold during the same event that saw Black American track stars Tommie Smith and Johnny Carlos giving a black gloved fist pump salute on the podium in one of the most memorable moments and photos in 20th Century sports.  When George won his medal for his TKO defeat of Soviet boxer Iones Chepulis, he waves a small American flag in the air in jubilation.  Upon arriving home, George faces criticism back in his neighborhood for being a sell out and embracing what many see is still a bigoted and racially segregated America.  Instead of embracing an activist's spirit, though, George channels his frustrations and disillusionment into becoming Heavyweight Champion.  Unfortunately, I felt that the sections of the film focusing on Foreman's early pro achievements were a tad too truncated and rushed over for their own good.  BIG GEORGE FOREMAN also seems to gloss over his larger tussle with Ali in Zaire.  It's not helped by the fact that the actor playing Ali (Sullivan Jones) is never once convincing in the role.  He not only doesn't look like Ali at all, but seems hopelessly adrift in trying to harness his flamboyant mannerisms.  These critical moments in Foreman's career were distractingly and problematically executed.  Even the recreations of Foreman's epic donnybrook with Ali suffer from too much digital fakery.  I never felt truly absorbed by these historical recreations.  They pushed me back instead of luring me in.

Scenes of domestic discourse between Foreman and his first wife are handled in a terribly awkward and stilted fashion.  Frank Baldwin's stiff dialogue in his script does the actors no favors whatsoever, and more times than not I felt that BIG GEORGE FOREMAN was several re-writes away from achieving fully formed status.  Even his religious conversion seems to happen so unimaginably (and unbelievably) quick to the point of it coming off as unintentionally funny.  Witnessing his transition away from being one of the more devastatingly dangerous men in the ring to a full-on Jesus-worshiping preacher lacks dramatic authority.  And, when it boils right down to it, Foreman himself is sometimes vaguely defined in his own story.  The core building blocks that created the Foreman of boxing lethality are well established here, but so much of the man's darker backstory seems to have been softened or ignored altogether.  How did this man come to be married not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times?  His first wife is presented merely as a plot device to help get the narrative propelled forward.  We rarely get any sizeable insight into the women behind Foreman's legacy, not to mention the lifelong friendship that he forged with Ali during their post-Rumble in the Jungle fight.  We are told that they became BFFs in the final title cards of the film, but we're not given the particulars as to how them became so tight in the film at all.   

Still, I liked what Davis does in this very challenging and thankless role.  He's not entirely a physical dead ringer for Foreman at any stage of his life, but does a good job of evoking this man's larger than life stature in and out of the squared circle.  And I also admired Whitaker's calmly nuanced turn as Foreman's mentor and trainer (granted, it's probably too underwritten of a role for an actor of his stature).  Foreman himself serves as producer here, which is telling.  BIG GEORGE FOREMAN will probably appeal to boxing fans and Christian audiences that want their films in easily digestible dosages and with as little offensively jarring or polarizing content as possible, but that's the very problem here.  Tillman's film is kind of like a two-hour George Foreman Grill infomercial: It goes through the motions, tells you the basics of what you need to know about the subject, and seems duty bound to sell you on its virtues first and foremost while turning a blind eye to anything that would hold your appreciation of said product back.  This is a safe and conventional biopic with its heart in the right place, but one that's painfully sluggish and pulls too many hard punches.

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