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"When you got all the chickens in the valley, you don't have to go out looking for the fox. Oh, no, the fox comes looking for you."
DVD ReviewAs a general rule, the Golden Globes are just one more in a seemingly endless stream of awards shows, but the 1998 edition was especially memorable—Ving Rhames, who won an award for his performance in the title role here, insisted that he wasn't worthy, that the late Jack Lemmon deserved the prize instead, and the insistence and apparent modesty with which Rhames foisted the statue on Lemmon seemed to run against the egomania so frequently on display by big-time movie stars. It's also the kind of gesture that Don King, one of the all-time great spotlight hounds, would no doubt disapprove of. But the truth is, Rhames deserved the award and all the acclaim that came his way, because his boundless energy and bravado are the glue that hold this movie together.
Movie biographies are notoriously difficult, because lives don't conveniently adhere to the structural dictates of a screenplay, and life is sloppier and more complicated than most movies ever could be. But King's life lends itself to film better than most—in many ways it's a classically American tale, the guy coming from the streets and learning how to work the system, rising to fame and fortune. And even better for the filmmakers: King is one of the true masters of self-invention, and as colorful as they come—part snake oil salesman, part snake, spewing enough profanity to make the cast of Scarface sound like a bunch of second-graders.
The story starts in Cleveland, in 1954, when King, trying to collect on a $600 debt, gets a little too enthusiastic in his convincing, and kills the guy instead—the judge knocks the charge down to involuntary manslaughter, but Don is off to the big house. He studies up in prison, and emerges a changed man, with a mission: he will be the first black boxing promoter, for hasn't the white man exploited black athletes long enough?
And when you're talking boxing at this time, you're talking about one man: Muhammad Ali. King gets to Ali, and uses his charm and guile on both him and George Foreman to promote the Rumble In The Jungle, their legendary heavyweight bout in Zaire in 1974. This sequence is in many ways the heart of the movie—getting the fighters to sign on, mollifying Mobutu, the Zairian dictator, getting the fight postponed and not canceled when Foreman suffers an injury in training—and though the production values aren't especially high, it's still pretty strong stuff. (It can't really compare to footage of the real thing, though, and if you've seen When We Were Kings, it's harder to suspend disbelief here; the same is true of Michael Mann's Ali biography.) For dramatic purposes here, the fight isn't really Ali versus Foreman, but Ali versus King, two of the great limelight hogs in the history of the media.
Rhames is excellent especially when King is spouting his Machiavellian philosophy of the streets: "If respect is not given freely, it must be exacted." The various episodes in King's life are linked by arias of him speaking directly to the camera, from inside a boxing ring—they're speeches that are a gift to an actor, and Rhames knocks them out of the park. (Please excuse the mixed sports metaphors.) When Ali's spiritual guides try to keep him away from King, the promoter isn't bashful about talking about his code—"Moolah is the reality of life, motherf***er, not Allah"—and when it's clear that Ali will cooperate no more, King goes out and finds himself a continuing succession of more malleable fighters, including most notably Larry Holmes and then Mike Tyson.
Rhames is supported by a fine cast of actors, and special recognition should go to those portraying the famous fighters—Darius McCrary got away from Urkel long enough to be a pretty convincing (if rather young) Ali, and former New York Giants linebacker Jarrod Bunch conveys all the menace of a young George Foreman, before he reinvented himself as a cartoon character and barbecue chef. Bernie Mac doesn't get enough screen time as Bundini Brown, one of Ali's cornermen, but he's a standout when he's on screen.
But it's Rhames you'll remember most and best, and he's just terrific, demonstrating a sense of humor and lightness that wasn't on display in his work in movies like Pulp Fiction. If the devil weren't charming, he wouldn't be the devil, and King may not be Satan himself, but, as one of the characters in the movie says, there just may be horns underneath that great shock of hair. You wouldn't want to do business with this man, but he's gloriously entertaining for the running time of this movie.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: HBO's budgets aren't as big as studios', but the production teams gets a lot of mileage out of their resources, and generally the film looks very good. Blacks are solid, as is the color level; there's a bit too much grain for my taste, and the occasional resolution problem in the transfer, but it's a solid job overall.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Dynamics are occasionally askew, particularly with music on the soundtrack; from time to time the songs are far louder than they should be, and interfere with the intelligibility of the conversations. It seems a shame to listen to King in any language other than English, but it's worth clicking over to the Spanish and French tracks for a moment to hear how he's rendered in other tongues.
Audio Transfer Grade: C
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by John Herzfeld (first track), Thomas Carter and Kario Salem (second track)
The second commentary track, with executive producer Thomas Carter and screenwriter Kario Salem, continues with the same theme of respect, "from Don King to Frank Sinatra to Michael Corleone." The two are old friends, and obviously have an affection as well as professional respect for one another; both offer keen insights into the making of the film, especially regarding the dangers of movie biographies. "Most biopics are like book reports," and that's the fear with a project like this, that it will end up just a narrative of events, and not a well-told story. And even after all their months of work on this project, they're still fascinated with King (calling him "one of the most intriguing figures of the twentieth century"), and noting that even those duped by him speak about King with a smile; it has to do, they surmise, with "the way in which Americans are in love with outlaws." Carter and Salem run out of steam toward the end, but in concert with Herzfeld's track, it's a very illuminating tour through the film.
Bios are for four of the lead actors (Rhames, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Jeremy Piven and Loretta Devine), as well as for Herzfeld, and Salem.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsMore than just a boxing picture, this very entertaining movie is done up right by HBO for DVD, and dispels any doubts that Ving Rhames is a big-time star. Avoid it if you're squeamish about rough language, because there's lots of that, but otherwise this is a disc fit for a King.
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