Film Reviews

Big George Foreman – Film Review

In 1994, George Foreman became the oldest man to capture the World Heavyweight Boxing Title, with a knockout over champion Michael Moorer. He was a couple of months shy of his forty-six birthday. This was the second public incarnation of Foreman.

He had first come to prominence in winning the Olympic title in Mexico City in 1968, before blasting through the professional ranks, capturing the world title in January 1973, in Kingston, Jamaica. After a couple of clinical defences, he would lose his title in Kinshasa, Zaire in October 1974 to Muhammad Ali in the famous Rumble in the Jungle. Three years later he retired after having a religious awakening in the dressing room minutes after his second defeat, to Jimmy Young. From being an angry, surly, selfish man, George credited this experience for enabling him to shed his anger and devote his life to Christian ministry.

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After founding his own church, an experience where Foreman failed to help a young man who was going off the rails led to the boy being arrested for murder only days later. Chastened by this, he formed a youth club for teens to learn to box, work out and meet others in a supportive environment. This was Foreman’s life for around ten years, until he learned that his money had, unbeknownst to him, been gambled on high-risk investments, forcing him into a comeback in his late-30s, but shorn of the intimidation factor and brutality that had once made him a success.

Big George Foreman tells this story, and more. Foreman published an autobiography, By George, in the 1990s, and this follows that book almost beat for beat. We see Foreman’s poverty-stricken childhood, where several siblings have to share one hamburger. We see the teenage George (Khris Davis plays him as an adult) get into trouble for muggings, and then enrol in Lyndon Johnson’s Job Corp scheme, leaving his home in Texas for California, and meeting Doc Broadus (Forrest Whitaker) who, after nearly expelling George for his explosive temper, takes him aside to teach him to box, then staying with him for the duration of his professional career. We see this career fall into disrepair as he comes to rely too much on his punching power, and to exercise poor discipline and judgement in his personal life, with his first marriage failing due to repeated infidelities on his part.

Photo by Alan Markfield. © 2023 CTMG, Inc.

His second career phase sees Davis gain the requisite weight to play the older, far heavier version of the man, and takes us through his journey back to the title. We even see him start to make money from the eponymous grill. This is all familiar as the story Foreman himself told in the nineties, with events reconstructed very accurately, fights playing out the same way as the real equivalents, and many of the actors looking like the people they are playing. Davis is terrific at capturing both the warmth and gentleness of post-1977 Foreman, as well as the brutal, directionless, and selfish younger version. It is a fine enjoyable primer on the life of a fascinating man known mainly to the non-boxing fan for his fat-reducing grilling machine.

The film does have a few flaws that do not spoil enjoyment, but arguably impair quality. Time jumps are too abrupt. We meet George at eleven years old, have one or two scenes with him, and suddenly he is in his mid-teens mugging people. Similarly, he boxes once or twice, a year from the Olympics, then says he wants to win it, and in the next scene he is in the tournament final. We needed a little more on how he could do this, when told it was impossible. We meet the woman who will be his become his wife, and she is called Mary (Jasmine Mathews), in later scenes he is calling her Joan, which is explained in the book, but it plays like a mistake here.

Some subtlety would have been useful in places: young George wants to answer a question in class, but the teacher will not call on him as his clothes are falling apart, choosing to ask a student with perfect shoes. It is a little on the nose. The film hints at younger George’s stories of coming home during the school day to just go back to bed, but as we do not fully see this, we do not really understand how he has gone so far off the rails.

Photo by Alan Markfield. © 2023 CTMG, Inc.

We could argue that the story is just a little too much from the point of view. Foreman is a believer in religious visions, the idea that God talks to him. Fine, but this leads to the film treating as indisputable fact that God told Joan that George would win back the Heavyweight title. The film is full of lessons that we can see coming a mile off. When Foreman first gets in the ring, it is very plain that he will be embarrassed. When he brushes off a request from a parishioner to help her son, we know that his tale will end badly. It is just that type of film.

The final complaints regard some of the execution. First, as Foreman’s temper, legal transgressions and infidelities are covered, it is unlikely to be whitewashing which prompted this filmmaking choice, but he has been married five times, and we see only two of them. Here he cheats on his first wife whilst champion the first time, then meets his second just as he starts in ministry. In reality, he had three wives in between, and married Mary (who he, indeed, did start to call Joan) in 1985. Put simply, there is just too much story to tell. His second act in life does not start until over an hour into the story, and we simply do not have time to go through all the details, hence the time jumps and omissions, but it does leave the feeling that these gaps are bridging over interesting parts of the story.

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The tendency towards homilies, moralising and time jumps can give this a TV movie feel at times, and this is never more the case than in a spectacularly awful special effect employed over a real George Foreman fight. In April 1991, he fought Evander Holyfield for the title, in a bout he would eventually lose. Director George Tillman Jr. has chosen to use real footage from the fight and superimpose Davis’ face over Foreman’s. It looks cheap and unconvincing, and the only time we’ve seen anything like that in anything resembling a high budget release was in putting Taron Egerton’s face onto Elton John’s body in the video for ‘I’m Still Standing’ in Rocketman. With narration from the character playing over much of the film, it reminds us of some of the TV sports movies that used to be turned out by HBO, such as Don King: Only in America.

This leaves Big George Foreman a film that lacks just a little rigour in the examination of its subject – this is very much the authorised biography – and it feeling a little cheap in execution. It does give us, however, a largely faithful telling of the story of a remarkable and fascinating man: one of the few men to completely remake himself such that he exists in public consciousness as two distinctly different people. For that alone, it is worth a watch.

Big George Foreman is out now in cinemas.

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