The incredible story of the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, is related in enormously entertaining fashion in “When We Were Kings.” Anchored by the incomparable charisma of Ali, who could be “rediscovered” by young audiences on the basis of the film, this snappily paced docu also can be profitably positioned based on the event’s status as a watershed moment in modern black culture and history.
This is one of the rare nonfiction films with considerable theatrical potential before an even more potent career on TV and video. A title change, possibly to “Rumble in the Jungle,” reportedly is being bruited, and would help better communicate pic’s subject and lively nature.
Director Leon Gast shot more than 250 hours of footage of events surrounding the fight, but disappearance and death of the original African financiers tied the material up for more than a decade before the filmmaker could even begin to look for completion funds, which helped pay for some engaging retrospective interviews with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who famously covered the fight, as well as with Spike Lee,who usefully describes Ali’s importance for the benefit of those too young to remember the champ in his prime.
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An initial point of interest is that the fight marked the emergence on the world stage of promoter Don King, who promised both fighters $ 5 million, then struck a deal with Zaire’s dictatorial President Mobutu Sese Seko, who saw the event as a vehicle for favorable international publicity.
Ali is front and center throughout, beginning with the exciting background of his meteoric rise to the heavyweight championship, his controversial conversion to Islam and being stripped of his belt due to his refusal to serve in Vietnam, then on to his comeback and re-emergence as the People’s Champ.
But the title still eluded him, having been claimed by a thuggish young hulk named George Foreman, who had demolished everyone in his path, including the ferocious Joe Frazier, who had beaten Ali.
Going into the fight, Foreman was a prohibitive 7-to-1 favorite.
Docu catches the initial ballyhoo, with the colorful King willingly taking a back seat to the irrepressible Ali, who furthered his reputation as a poetic prognosticator with lines like, “You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Wait ’til I kick Foreman’s behind!”
For pugilism enthusiasts, there is intriguing footage of a young sparring partner named Larry Holmes getting the better of the 32-year-old Ali in training camp.
To further promote the event and solidify the African-American link, a music festival, starring the likes of James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, the Pointer Sisters and Miriam Makeba, was staged in Kinshasa, brief footage of which provides a mildly diverting pause before the main event.
The vast differences in personality and popularity between Ali and Foreman are dramatically illustrated by contrasting footage of their respective plane flights from the U.S. to Zaire: Ali hangs out in the cockpit, mock-marvels at being flown by black pilots, and receives a tumultuous reception from government dignitaries and seemingly tens of thousands of fans; by contrast, a low-key Foreman concentrates on trying to learn a few words of French for his official reception and is greeted by a couple of dozen people at most.
The bout’s six-week postponement due to a Foreman injury provides the opportunity to watch Ali interact with locals, especially kids, as well as for Plimpton to interview King. Mailer vividly describes the mood in Ali’s dressing room before the fight as “like a morgue,” with everyone petrified of the possible result. The eight-round event, which instantly entered into boxing lore due to Ali’s shocking use of the “rope-a-dope” to induce Foreman to punch himself out before Ali administered one of the most startling knockouts of all time, is, if anything, overly telescoped, given the tremendous buildup.
For anyone who followed Ali at the time, it is great to see him again here at the pinnacle of his career, embodying at once a great athlete, incomparable showman, assertive role model and spokesman/ambassador for the interests of blacks everywhere. As for Foreman, witnessing his sullen demeanor and bad attitude here makes his transformation into the genial and funny crowd-pleaser he subsequently became even more amazing.
Tightly made and populated by a uniformly larger-than-life cast of characters , pic is a total delight for every second of its running time.