Movie Review: The Lumbering Charms of “Big George Foreman”

“Big George Foreman” is a movie that mimics its title character to a T. Like the fighter himself, it’s big and bloated and ungainly on its feet, but with a gentle charm that made this boxing legend, owner of the greatest overage comeback in sports history, a folk hero.

Even the title veteran director George Tillman Jr. (“Barbershop,” “Notorious,” “Mudbound”) has to work with — “Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World” — is nothing if not lumbering.

But this faith-based drama hangs on an absolutely fascinating figure, a Goliath-sized puncher who won big, then lost fights and lost his way, found Jesus — “I didn’t know he was lost, George” Muhammed Ali joked. — and struggled to make a difference in his hometown, Houston. He staged a wildly improbable, overweight and over-age comeback, and became beloved because he took it all with good humor as he transformed into the greatest electric grille salesman in history.

The formidable Khris Davis (“Detroit,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” and TV’s “Atlanta”) transforms himself into the scowling brute of Foreman’s youth, an Olympic underdog who took home a gold medal and strutted through his neighborhood wearing it, a very young heavyweight champ and a young ex-champ when he let Muhammed Ali (a very charismatic Sullivan Jones) talk him into staging their title fight in Kinshasha, Zaire, in a ring hemmed in by loosey-goosey rope-a-dope ropes.

Davis lets us see the bulky, cuddly Dad that Foreman became, someone who gave up his rage, turned to preaching, lost his fortune and staged a comeback to retrieve it and continue his ministry.

Tillman’s film takes us back to George’s violent, misdirected youth (Austin David Jones plays him as a tween) teased and held back in school, with his pious waitress mother (Sonja John, fierce) trying to control his fury and barely feeding herself and her four children.

Even when he’s a success, she reminds him he hurts people. “You’re better than this.”

We see the young George still clinging to violence, rolling drunks with a pal until one drunk turns out to be an undercover cop. He gets a second chance when he enrolls in one of the Great Society programs, Job Corps, where he might struggle to learn to become an electrician, but an understanding counselor (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) takes him under his wing and turns him into a boxing champion.

He is depicted as a flawed and very human man-child, waving an American flag in the ring at the 1968 Olympics when much of Black America, and even athletes at those Mexico City Olympics, were protesting or in open revolt. He gets famous and cheats on his gorgeous first wife (Shein Mompremier), lets Ali bait him into punching himself out in the jungle heat of Africa, and experiences a religious locker room epiphany that might have been a concussive, seizure reaction to another beating he’d just suffered in the ring.

And on and on this life has gone, changing focus, preaching from a pickup truck bed and starting a youth center to get Houston’s kids off the streets, losing all his money (John Magaro plays the old friend who you just know is going to botch investing) even as he finds a new love (Jasmine Matthews) and a determination to get back in the ring to balance their books and fulfill what he and his wife see as a Mission from God.

This saga could have easily become a comedy, and someday, perhaps someone else will take that approach, as Foreman’s TV talk show guest/grill pitchman persona is nothing if not goofy.

But they went instead for an upbeat faith-based emphasis in the story, which is both uplifting and something of a handicap as it helps make this feel over-long and yet incomplete.

How the folks who bought rights to The George Foreman Grill from him didn’t show up at the production office with bags of cash begging to have that part of the story in this movie is a mystery.

The film never lets you forget it’s financially malnourished, and Davis, Whitaker and Magaro are the only “names” in the cast, there are all these semi-successful impersonations of Joe Frazier and sportscasters from Howard Cosell to Jim Lampley, and the most cut-rate “Tonight Show” recreation ever.

But the fights are first rate, not “Creed” or “Raging Bull” or even “Rocky” showy, but brutal, with Tillman making us hear and feel Foreman’s freight-train punches on bodies or punching bags.

The movie never quite clears that “mixed bag” mark. But as faith-based entertainment, it’s uplifting and lightly inspiring. As a sport drama, it tells a story that made generations stare on in disbelief at every “THAT just happened” moment. And as a flattering, feel-good portrait of a guy who overcame much, made big mistakes, lost confidence and had his crisis of faith, someone who kept plugging away and just got more lovable in the process, it’s hard to knock.

Rating:  PG-13 for some sports violence, sexual situations

Cast: Khris Davis, Jasmine Matthews, Sonja John, Sullivan Jones, John Magaro,
Shein Mompremier, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Sam Trammell and Forest Whitaker

Credits: Directed by George Tillman Jr., scripted by Frank Baldwin, Dan Gordon and George Tillman Jr. A Sony Affirm release.

Running time: 2:00


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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2 Responses to Movie Review: The Lumbering Charms of “Big George Foreman”

  1. Mark Mooney says:

    It deserves more than just 2 stars.

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