Boxers like George Foreman become widely recognized as generational talents. However, what they do after competing at the highest levels of sports often shifts how we view their legacy. Yet Big George Foreman, a new film from director George Tillman Jr., tries to intertwine the two aspects of the famed boxer’s life. Unfortunately, Big George Foreman suffers from its old-school mentality. It not only feels too formulaic as a story, but it cannot deliver satisfying boxing sequences.
Taking a page from 1990s biopics, Big George Foreman examines most of its subject’s life. It begins with the man as a child, first showing how he got into enough trouble to find himself pushed to the edge of society. At a new school, Foreman (Khris Davis) meets Doc Broadus (Forest Whitaker), who begins training him to box. We watch his rise to the top of the boxing world, including fights with Frasier, Ali (Sullivan Jones), and his loss to Jimmy Young. After the last loss, Foreman suffers a near-death experience and leaves the sport behind to become a preacher. However, when he trusts the wrong man (Joe Magaro) with his money, he must step back into the ring to provide a life for his family.
Tillman lets the story unfold in the most conventional ways possible. As a result, Big George Foreman lacks the energy to sustain momentum. This is most obvious during the fight sequences, which drag compared to modern fighting classics Creed and Warrior. The fights are slow. At one point, Muhammad Ali’s famous taunting of Foreman as Mummy comes up, and the movie then aims for that level of excitement. Every beat feels generic and telegraphed, washing out the personal stakes of each moment for Foreman. Even the Ali fight feels underwhelming. In many instances, an unnamed boxer could stand in for Foreman, and our feelings towards the material would not change.
The lone aspect of Big George Foreman that feels different from the traditional biopic comes from his faith. However, even this sequence leans into tropes of recent faith-based films. Foreman comes to the revelation about his power as a pastor and realizes the error of ignoring God. At one point, Foreman is given credit for saving his nephew during a tumultuous birth because “what you said worked.” While movies like Breakthrough and Facing the Giants have their stunning moments, Big George Foreman uses his faith as a superpower that can change the fates of those around him.
His faith becomes an issue in two scenes throughout the film. In one case, Whittaker tries to get him back in the ring. However, he declines because of his faith, and the two become estranged. Second, a young boy asks Foreman to train him as a boxer, and when Foreman says no, the boy robs a store. While Big George Foreman attempts to lay both issues as prideful actions by its protagonist, it’s clear that the overall movie does not want to portray Foreman in a negative light.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film is subbing in patriotism for faith early in the movie. After winning the Gold Medal, Foreman pushes back against other black men who feel like America has let them down. Rather than engage in the conversation, he vents to others. Perhaps most tellingly, this conversation does not occur with Ali, who was forced to vacate his world championship belts for taking a stand against serving in Vietnam. Instead, George wants to be known as a good patriot, and rather than investigate those ideals (which can be valid), it simply frames those who question patriotism as those in the wrong.
Whether intentional or not, Foreman’s unquestioning belief in America pushes him down a dark road. The excess he achieves through capitalism and boxing leads him to cheat on his wife and destroy relationships. He also “tames” his first wife from being a radical, only to become unfaithful. However, rather than use these moments to open Foreman’s eyes to the struggles the “American Dream” can put on many, he dives into blind faith to see through his problems. It’s frustrating to see a film come so close to acknowledging larger societal trends that could have opened the doors for substantive conversations, only for the film to back away from the idea. This likely does not fall on the creative team but on the Foreman estate. Sadly, this paints Big George Foreman in a corner closer to The Blind Side than Ali, a disservice to the athlete and mogul.
Despite these flaws, two performances stand out. The first is Davis, who truly puts his all into the transformation. While this biopic does not often service the lead, Davis still shines through. One can only wonder how good he might have been with a story and screenplay willing to dig more into the Foreman’s more complicated ideas. Additionally, Sullivan Jones as Ali brings out an enjoyable side of the icon. It’s not as nuanced as One Night in Miami or Ali, but Jones delivers the lone bursts of energy into Big George Foreman. Without Jones, this might have been a joyless experience.
Like many other celebrity biopics with collaborations from the subject, Big George Foreman cannot dig into questions that could have elevated the film. Instead, it settles for a baseline, surface-level analysis of an intriguing athlete. Despite Foreman’s power as an athlete and icon, we are left with a straightforward examination of the man. While God, devotion, and will be enough for Foreman to explain his success, human beings are more complicated than that. Sadly, the George Foreman biopic is a letdown in that regard. It is more willing to make a one-off joke about the grills he would sponsor than confront the difficult truths of his life.