Don King: Only in America

Don King, the megaphone-voiced boxing impresario who has parlayed a shameless penchant for self-promotion and a lifetime of bad hair days into a warped version of the American dream, absorbs jabs and uppercuts galore in this wildly entertaining, wholly unflattering biopic that casts him as a demon who sucks the money and humanity from everything he touches.

With:
Cast: Ving Rhames, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Jeremy Piven, Darius McCrary, Keith David, Bernie Mac, Loretta Devine, Donzaleigh Abernathy, Lou Rawls, Ron Leibman, Jarrod Bunch, Israel Cole, Clifford Couser.

Don King, the megaphone-voiced boxing impresario who has parlayed a shameless penchant for self-promotion and a lifetime of bad hair days into a warped version of the American dream, absorbs jabs and uppercuts galore in this wildly entertaining, wholly unflattering biopic that casts him as a demon who sucks the money and humanity from everything he touches. King will not be pleased, at least publicly. Privately, he will no doubt exult over the free two-hour plug.

Based on Jack Newfield’s scathing book, “Don King: Only in America” is a larger-than-life piece of filmmaking driven by a dazzlingly over-the-top performance by Ving Rhames (“Pulp Fiction,” “Rosewood”) as King. Movie is as outrageous and extravagant as the man himself, with Rhames bearing an uncanny resemblance to His Royal Hairness.

Yet “Only in America” is not a great film, or even a particularly illuminating one. It more or less revels in the obvious while alternately depicting its protagonist as a bully, a villain, a killer and a money-grubbing opportunist who learned his trade at the feet of the mob. None of this is exactly new. We do learn how, and why, King began styling his hair with that just-went-through-a-food-processor look. But it’s hardly profound stuff.

Indeed, as good as Rhames is in portraying King both in flashback and present-day (ranting directly into the camera from inside a boxing ring to amplify points and defend his unctuous ways), it’s often difficult to tell if Rhames is playing Don King or the Don King caricature the man has become over time. It’s both a glorious opportunity for an actor and a thankless, impossible task.

We likewise don’t get a whole lot of balance in “Only in America.” It begins in 1954 in Cleveland, where Donald King is a numbers runner who is forced to shoot and kill one of three men who burst into his home to steal money. Anyone looking for insight into how King was raised, or what truly drives him, won’t find it in Kario Salem’s colorful but single-minded script. To believe the movie, the man never did a decent thing in his worthless life.

Film charts King’s rise from street thug (the 1954 shooting was ruled a justifiable homicide) to killer (he beat a man to death in 1966 over a $600 debt, depicted in the film with chilling intensity) to prison inmate (he served four years for the killing, ultimately reduced to manslaughter) to relentless boxing dealmaker with limitless chutzpah.

King emerged from prison in 1971 with a newly expanded vocabulary and a knack for spinning bull. He used his relationship with R&B singer Lloyd Price (solid work from “Chicago Hope’s” Vondie Curtis-Hall) to land on the phone with heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali (played weakly by Darius McCrary). Once in that door, he played the race card to align himself with big-time fighters and wound up brokering the famed 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” battle between champ George Foreman and Ali in Zaire.

In fact, “Only in America” bogs down somewhat while illustrating King’s impact on the Zaire battle, spending the better part of a half-hour showcasing the way King honed his skills as both mock diplomat and marketeer extraordinaire. By the time the film makes its way to King’s relationship with erratic meal ticket Mike Tyson, the association is dispensed with in five absurdly compressed minutes.

We also see how King honed his transparently duplicitous modus operandi in working with fighters and managers alike, primarily through his contemptuous dealings with charisma-challenged champ Larry Holmes. It’s like watching a Doberman work a roomful of poodles.

Much of the boxing footage, as directed by helmer John Herzfeld, is of the overcooked, “Rocky”-esque variety, with every punch appearing to carry knockout power. Herzfeld and exec producer Thomas Carter interweave the pic with a stifling ambiance that magnifies the cynicism and contempt evoked by Rhames’ portrayal.

Movie often proves captivating in spite of it all due to its broad strokes and Rhames’ magnetic center. Yet when all is said and done, “Only in America” feels an awful lot like HBO’s revenge on King for his having taken Tyson and abandoned the HBO nest for competitor Showtime a few years back. This isn’t so much a film as it is a long-winded vendetta.

Tech credits are uniformly superb.

Don King: Only in America

Sat. (15), 8-10 p.m., HBO

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by the Thomas Carter Co. in association with HBO Pictures. Executive producer, Thomas Carter; producer, David Blocker; director, John Herzfeld; writer, Kario Salem; based on the book by Jack Newfield.

Crew: Camera, Bill Butler; editor, Steve Cohen; music, Anthony Marinelli; casting, Robi Reed.

Cast: Cast: Ving Rhames, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Jeremy Piven, Darius McCrary, Keith David, Bernie Mac, Loretta Devine, Donzaleigh Abernathy, Lou Rawls, Ron Leibman, Jarrod Bunch, Israel Cole, Clifford Couser.

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