When he was the Greatest Review: So what if 'When We Were Kings' is more love poem than documentary? Seeing Ali at his best is worth the price of admission.

March 14, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

The inside story of "When We Were Kings" is nearly as good as the outside story: it's about a guy with 300,000 feet of raw film stacked on shelves and in closets in his apartment. It was film of one of the legendary events of professional sports, almost unseen since the night it transpired. But Leon Gast couldn't get the bucks to knit it together into a feature, and so for years, the celluloid just sat, gathering dust.

Finally, one of his friends became rich: Now, at last, assisted by a team of latecomers (like Taylor Hackford, director of "Officer and a Gentleman"), here it is, an account of the "Rumble in the Jungle," the famous 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire between the seemingly spent Muhammad Ali and the young, mean and seemingly unbeatable George Foreman. Among its other legacies, it entered the term "rope-a-dope" into the language.

And the one thing you can say is: better late than on time. If the film came out in 1975, who would have cared? Twenty-two years after the fact, its greatest asset is remarkable, not tiresome. And that is Ali at full-blossom, in the wholeness of his manhood, totally ablaze with radiant personality. He's a figure gone too long from public view, replaced instead by a silent, slightly palsied icon with clouded eyes whose past no one quite remembers.

In his prime, was this guy a piece of work, or what? Rare enough are world-class athletes -- men with the physical and mental strength to dominate their viciously competitive arenas for a decade -- but how much rarer still can such a man be who also has a charisma so powerful that it creeps into and illuminates all the dark corners of the earth? Ali may have had the fastest hands in the world, but he had a personality more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, faster than a speeding bullet.

Gast pitches the film entirely to him (primarily through promoter Don King, who hired Gast; but also because the then-churlish Foreman would not grant much access) and much of it feels like pure hagiography. Nary a nasty word is said about Ali, and his strengths and weaknesses are not probed. So "documentary" really isn't the proper word for the piece; call it an Ali infomercial. It's at its best when Gast's sole contribution is to push the camera's "on" button, and just record the Ali-fication of the world.

Even viewed from a posture of obdurate sychophancy, Ali is big enough to endure such worship and his charm mesmerizes. The camera seems to liberate him; he becomes more expansive, more outrageous, more bodacious, a symbol first of blackness and then of humanity. He is not the subject, he is the star, amid a drama of bizarre machinations and plot twists, in a setting that was as malevolent as it was spectacular.

The circumstances were peculiar: the fight was the partial brainchild of Zairian dictator Mobuto Sese Seko, a dour little killer in a leisure suit who gives everybody the creeps, including the cameraman and the kid selling popcorn in the theater lobby. Mobuto used it to promote his own supreme godliness, so there's the weird texture of despotic megalomania at play, and the feeling that, just off-camera, people are being executed. Think of it as: Stag at Stalin's.

Race, too, is everywhere. It was billed as a celebration of blackness, the return to roots of the great champ, complete with musical celebration (with James Brown, the godfather of soul) and Ali cleverly manipulates the Africans into worship, until they greeted him with a chant: "Ali, Bomaye!" meaning, "Ali, kill him." The white journalists and hangers-on can be seen gulping nervously in the background. There's electricity and violence in the air.

Then, just when the fight was approaching, Foreman cut his forehead while sparring and had to back off for the flesh to heal. The fight was postponed for six weeks. Mobuto would let nobody leave: the press was essentially held hostage in Kinshasa.

When the fight finally happened, Foreman seemed to have lost the edge. Perhaps extra exposure to the angry feelings of the Africans who viewed him as the "white man's champion" finally wore down his will. Perhaps a witch doctor did the voo-doo hoo-doo boomlay boomlay thing on him (the movie actually credits this notion). In any event, one of the most-feared punchers in the game, he could not land a knock-out blow on the older man and punched himself dry banging on shoulders and arms, while Ali either (depending on the depth of your Ali-love) cowered or lounged in the ropes, took the hits and upbraided him.

Finally, in the sixth, Ali came out of his fake stupor and stunned the now exhausted man with a looping right that caught Foreman flush in the temple and flattened him. And Ali, at 34, had done the impossible, moving from mere greatness to legend in the blink of time it took that right fist to etch its parabola across the African night and impact with the poundage of a sledge.

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