As you know, I’m a sucker for boxing movies. Love ’em because they so often translate into exciting cinema.
And the true story of heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman is a remarkable one, all by its lonesome without any fanfare.
So, BIG GEORGE FOREMAN (2023), the new movie based on the life of boxer George Foreman, could be a really good movie without even trying, but it does try, and the result is a good one. It’s a highly entertaining movie that tells a fascinating story of a man who learned to adapt to everything life threw at him, and at the end of the day, he came out on top as a champion. Not once. But twice.
We first meet George Foreman as a young boy growing up dirt poor in Houston in the early 1960s. His family is so poor he and his brothers and sisters have to share one fast food burger for dinner, but their family is held together by their hard-working and very religious mother Nancy (Sonja Sohn). In school, George with his quick temper and huge size and strength, can’t seem to keep himself out of fights.
As a young adult in the late 1960s, George (Khris Davis) joins Job Corps, a government program which was part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty where George hopes to learn some job skills and be provided meals and get paid. But he can’t stop fighting there either, but fortunately for George, he meets Doc Broadus (Forest Whitaker), a former boxer who now trains fighters, and he teaches George how to box. Doc is highly impressed by the tremendous force in Foreman’s punches. Foreman sets his sights on the heavyweight championship, but Doc tells him of the long process which he must follow first. The first step is the Olympics, and on the international stage, young George Foreman stuns the world and wins the Gold Medal by defeating the heavily favored Soviet boxer.
Next up for George is the heavyweight championship, and standing in his way is Joe Frazier. Again, Foreman stuns the world by knocking out the previously indestructible Frazier in just two rounds. Suddenly, George Foreman is king of the world and is enjoying riches he never imagined. But his success is short-lived, because his next big bout is against Muhammad Ali, who was still on his mission to reclaim the heavyweight belt which was taken from him years earlier because of his refusal to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Ali’s previous attempt to win back the championship ended in a loss to Joe Frazier.
This time, Foreman with his superhuman punches, is the heavy favorite to win against the older Ali, but Ali, a master at psyching out his opponents, which is something that BIG GEORGE FOREMAN doesn’t really get into, but the fight billed as the “Rumble in the Jungle” was held in Zaire, Africa, and Ali pretty much wowed the people there and turned the fans against Foreman, and the crowd that night was very much pro-Ali, which stunned Foreman. And then Ali unleashed a brilliant boxing strategy, leaning against the ropes, letting Foreman throw punch after punch until he became exhausted. Ali knocked Foreman out in the 8th round, and suddenly Foreman was no longer champion.
Shortly thereafter, Foreman collapses and nearly dies, and he has an out of body experience, which, when he comes out of it, influences him to retire from boxing and become a preacher, which he does. He also remarries and starts a new family, but when his fortunes from boxing are all lost due to poor financial planning by the man who Foreman had put in charge of caring for his finances, Foreman finds himself broke again. Now in his 40s, Foreman reunites with Doc and convinces him to train him once again. They once more set their sights on shocking the world, as Foreman now very much overweight trains and gets himself into shape to box again where he builds an impressive undefeated record and once more heads towards a chance to win the heavyweight championship, which, unbelievably, he ultimately does.
I told you it was a remarkable story.
As you probably can tell, I really enjoyed BIG GEORGE FOREMAN. As I said, the best part of this movie is it has an incredible true story to tell, and it’s not just because Foreman won the heavyweight championship two different times, but also because of the whole process Foreman follows throughout his life. He is able to remake himself because he understands the power of being able to adapt.
The screenplay by George Tillman, Jr., who directed, Frank Baldwin, and Dan Gordon is effective because it shows George Foreman as a man who rolls with the punches and who not only makes bold choices but also isn’t afraid to change course when he feels it is right to do so. In short, he is able to adapt. When he first becomes a fighter, he’s told to unleash the beast inside him and simply destroy his opponents, and so he embraced his dark side and became viewed as a merciless fighter. But during the Ali fight, his trainers kept telling him, “Keep punching, don’t let up!” which played precisely into Ali’s strategy which ultimately cost Foreman the fight. Had he adapted in the middle of the fight, he may have won.
Foreman uses this thinking when he decides to leave boxing and become a preacher, finally embracing the religion that his mother had always championed but he had bristled at. In fact, during one scene when he’s heavyweight champion, and he invites his family to a lavish meal, his mother says they should thank God first, and Foreman replies that he bought the food, not God. But now it seems right to him to give up boxing and give his life to God.
For a long time, this feels like the right decision, but when he finds himself broke again, he turns to the only other thing he knows, and the one thing he does which makes him money— being a preacher is not paying the bills— which is boxing. Again, he’s told this is a crazy thing to do, but Foreman adapts yet again. My favorite part of this story is Foreman doesn’t follow one easy path to success. His life was full of twists and turns, and he makes decisions at each and every one of these turns, and he makes the most of each of his decisions. It’s great storytelling. It’s a great story.
Kris Davis is fantastic as George Foreman. Not only does he capture the likeness and personality of the real Foreman, but he’s able to navigate the different sides of Foreman throughout this movie. He’s the menacing young heavyweight champion. Then he’s the jovial smiling preacher. Then he’s the overweight bald older boxer who is suddenly the “good guy” in the ring, and the guy who a whole set of older fans are rooting for because of his age. Davis captures all of these personas brilliantly. Davis was also in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021).
Sonja Sohn is terrific as Foreman’s mother Nancy, and she is a strong presence in his life and keeps pushing him forward during all his trials and tribulations. Yet it’s interesting to note that Foreman didn’t always listen to her. Had he, he never would have boxed, since she was against his fighting. Again, Foreman’s life did not follow a set path. There were nuances and curves, and Foreman had to continually navigate through them. Sometimes he listened to his mother, other times to Doc, other times to himself, and other times to God. And while his mother did not want him to box, she supported his boxing career nonetheless, even when he stopped being a preacher to return to the ring.
And as Doc Broadus, Forest Whitaker gets to deliver one of his more memorable performances in years. Whitaker has been in everything lately, from the STAR WARS movies and shows to the Marvel superhero films, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen him play an impactful role like this one. He’s great. The friendship between Doc and Foreman is one of the best parts of the movie. Doc really seems to enjoy training Foreman and wants that heavyweight championship as much as George does, and when George decides to walk away from boxing, it was a decision that really hurt Doc, who believed Foreman still had a legitimate shot at getting back into the ring and beating Ali in a rematch. So, years later, when they are reunited to try for the championship again, their almost heartwarming moments together really resonate. And as Doc, Whitaker gets one of the best lines in the movie. Just before the flabby Foreman is about to box, he tells Doc he’s afraid to take off his robe in front of all these fans because the last time they saw him, he looked like Superman, to which Doc replies, “Well, now you look like the Michelin Man” and tells him it’s not a beauty contest and to just go out and box.
The boxing scenes are fine. Director George Tillman Jr. does a nice job with them, the two best being the Frazier fight and then the loss to Ali. The film slows down a bit when George retires and becomes a preacher, but even this part of the movie works. Earlier this year, the religious film JESUS REVOLUTION (2023) struggled to really capture the essence of religion. It was all very vanilla and didn’t really speak to anyone who wasn’t already religious. That’s not the case here in BIG GEORGE FOREMAN. You really understand why Foreman becomes a preacher, and you really feel his religious conversion. Also, once he becomes a preacher, his life does not turn to gold, and he lives happily ever after. No. He loses everything, and he has to return to boxing, but he keeps his faith, which like the rest of the movie, shows how Foreman adapted to things life threw at him.
The worst part about BIG GEORGE FOREMAN is its title, and that’s because the official title of this movie is…. wait for it… BIG GEORGE FOREMAN: THE MIRACULOUS STORY OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD. Wow. If this movie were to win Best Picture, it would take nearly as long to read the title as the entire awards show! Okay, maybe not that long. But what a mouthful.
Anyway, the rest of BIG GEORGE FOREMAN is terrific and highly recommended.
Then again, as I said at the outset, I’m a sucker for boxing movies.
But I also love movies that have really good stories to tell, and BIG GEORGE FOREMAN tells one helluva story. And it’s true.
I give it three and a half stars.
Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line
Three and a half stars- Excellent
Three stars – Very Good
Two and a half stars – Good
Two Stars – Fair
One and a half stars – Pretty Weak
One star- Poor
Zero stars – Awful