When We Were Kings (Leon Gast)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

In 1974, an allegedly over-the-hill Muhammad Ali boldly challenged George Foreman, then heavyweight champion of the world, to a "Rumble in the Jungle" -- a match to be held in Zaire, at the request of that impoverished country's brutal dictator, who was eager to attract worldwide attention (and thereby income). Favored to win by nobody except himself, Ali pulled off one of the most startling upsets in sports history, knocking Foreman to the canvas by employing a strategy so canny that it eventually turned up in Rocky III (if memory serves -- it's been a while). Using mostly contemporaneous footage (the film is finally being seen more than two decades after it was conceived), director Leon Gast does little more than present the events as they occurred, but there are two reasons why this documentary will appeal even to those who find boxing either barbaric or a bore: the African setting, and Ali's inexplicable but undeniable charisma. The former provides a rich political, cultural, and socio-economic context for what is, let's face it, an otherwise simpleminded tale of two big guys threatening to beat the shit out of one another; it's difficult to get terribly involved in the outcome when witnesses are alleging that a hundred or more known criminals were rounded up and summarily executed prior to the match (thus frightening the ones who remained into temporary inaction), so that the foreign press wouldn't see anything that might reflect poorly upon Zaire. The latter -- Ali's charisma -- is difficult to explain to those who, like myself, are too young to remember Ali in his heyday; it may seem counter-intuitive to imagine that a man who spends most of his energy boasting about himself could be eminently lovable, but it's never less than obvious that Ali's crowing and bragging and taunts and threats are designed to convince himself as much as anybody else. He's a riot, and this film made me laugh more frequently than most of the outright comedies I've seen this year. Curiously, though the film's minimal present-day footage includes talking heads interviews with celebrities who witnessed the bout (Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley), as well as celebrities who had nothing to do with it at all (Spike Lee), Ali and Foreman themselves -- who to the best of my knowledge are both still living -- appear only in "flashback"; if this was an intentional, artistic choice, I must confess that I don't get it. Nevertheless, in a year notable for terrific non-fiction films, When We Were Kings is among the best. [Insert corny boxing metaphor à la Gene Shalit here.]

(Note: When We Were Kings was given a token one-week theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles, in order to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award; if this ploy succeeds, it may turn up on screens again sometime in 1997.)