Who would have thought that our Creator invested so much personally in the future of the portable grill industry?
Few genres in Hollywood history have enjoyed as much endurance as the boxing movie—and it’s not hard to see why. In addition to satisfying our primal desire to watch big men beat the tar out of each other, they also have a built-in dramatic structure that’s nearly impossible to screw up. Two fighters clash, put the good guy through an unimaginable amount of adversity during training, and then let it all boil down to a big match that serves as a metaphor for the main character’s inner conflict. As admirable as he found Barton Fink’s principled refusal to write wrestling movies, Jack Lipnick realized something when he told him, “There’s a lot of poetry in that ring.”
So it’s almost impressive that “Big George Foreman: The Amazing Story of the Former and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World” is so boring. (And yes, that’s the actual title. All 16 of them.) George Foreman’s storied boxing career—which saw him win the world heavyweight championship at 24, retire to become a preacher, and win it again at 45—is one of the most incredible stories in sports history. We’ve been waiting a long time for a great George Foreman movie. His life literally took the form of the three-act structure that screenwriters rely on, so he did the heavy lifting for them!
Yet this sad biopic from director George Tillman Jr., which tries to reframe Foreman’s life as a faith-based tale of Christians triumphing over unbelievers, sucks the life out of the story. The current arc of the boxer’s career remains fascinating, but the convoluted plot, filled with heavy-handed metaphors and dated fight scenes, makes it almost unwatchable. “Big George Foreman” is to Foreman’s life as a counter George Foreman Grill is to a Weber.
When we first meet George Foreman (Khris Davis), he was a troubled teenager who spent his entire childhood being bullied because of his family’s poverty. His desire to earn money and help his mother is sincere, but his anger prevents him from taking on anything resembling meaningful work. But when local boxing trainer Doc Broadus (Forest Whitaker) sees him in a street fight, he decides the young man is “big and ugly enough” to be a boxer. He takes him under his wing and begins to show him the ropes of the sport – though he makes it clear that George needs to leave his aggression in the ring and behave outside the gym.
Foreman moves at a fast pace, though we’re never given a chance to see what makes him so good. A particularly groan-inducing scene is when Doc tells him that he could train harder than anyone before and still he wouldn’t make it to the next Olympics – only to win a gold medal the following year. Before long, he defeats Joe Frazer for the heavyweight title and gets everything he’s ever wanted—fame, fortune, and an increasingly hedonistic lifestyle that his religious mother (Sonja Sohn) disapproves of.
But all good things must come to an end, and Foreman is about to lose his title to Muhammad Ali (Sullivan Jones) when he falls victim to Ali’s now-iconic rope-and-drugs strategy. Jones’ small role as Ali portrays the boxing legend as nothing more than a hostile tyrant who is always on his next paycheck. It’s an interesting choice for a faith-based film that portrays perhaps the most famous religious athlete of the 20th century—the man who changed his name to reflect his deep Muslim faith—as a secular villain pitted against a godly protagonist.
Shortly after dropping the belt, George has a religious epiphany. He collapses in the dressing room and, as he tells it, dies briefly, but is saved by the last-minute intervention of Jesus Christ. It’s all shown on a black screen, so who’s to say you’re wrong? The experience is so moving that he decides to give up the fight and devote himself to preaching the word of God. After divorcing his worldly wife and marrying a lovely church girl (Jasmine Matthews), he begins preaching weekly on Sundays and builds a community center in a neighborhood of Houston to keep kids off the streets.
Everything is chugging along until he discovers that his finances are depleted due to his philanthropic endeavors and a malevolent financial manager. The boxing legend has no money left and no way to earn it other than a barbecue contract that no one thinks is worth anything. Despite being 20 years older (and considerably heavier) than his championship self, he decides to return to the ring and once again pursue the heavyweight belt to try and pay his bills. His wife initially opposes the idea, but quickly relents when she sees it as an opportunity for Foreman to preach on the world’s biggest stage.
Foreman’s road to redemption — his hat-in-hand encounter with Doc, the fitness regimen that helps him lose 50 pounds, the gradual ascension from smaller exhibition fights to title fights — has all the makings of an incredible movie. But as the film nears the end of its two-hour-and-eight-minute run, Tillman takes every opportunity to defuse the story. A short training montage, a joke about Foreman being forced to eat oatmeal when he’d rather have pancakes, and an even shorter title fight is about all we get. There is not even room to explain what God’s role was in the whole process. The rushed ending ensures that what was already a bad boxing movie is also a bad Christian movie.
As human society enters the age of artificial intelligence and deep fakes, celebrities are suing companies for using their likenesses without permission. The law is clear: you can’t claim to endorse a product when you haven’t. After watching “Big George Foreman,” it’s fair to wonder if this precedent should be extended to God. It is possible that the deity who created our planet, whose transcendent beauty inspired Bob Dylan to write the book “Every Grain of Sand”, is not happy to have his name attached to it. this.
Sony Pictures will release “Big George Foreman: The Amazing Story of the Former and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World” in theaters on Friday, April 28.
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