Picks and Pans Review: When We Were Kings

updated 02/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

Documentary

Understated, witty and fascinating, this film chronicles the Rumble in the Jungle—the 1974 heavyweight championship fight in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and the heavily favored George Foreman. Director Leon Gast uses mostly original footage of the incessant, prefight hype, the elaborate ceremonies in Zaire (James Brown, Miriam Makeba and the Spinners were among those who performed) and the fight itself. Ali, of course, steals the show even before the fight begins, shadowboxing with cameramen and ribbing sportscaster Howard Cosell. In his signature verse, Ali tells Cosell: "I'm gonna tell the world that thing on your head's a phony, that it's made from the tail of a pony."

The film, an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature, also splices in current interviews with such observers as Norman Mailer, Spike Lee and George Plimpton. Mailer provides the only insightful boxing analysis, noting Ali's unorthodox use of a right-handed lead punch and explaining how Ali leaned against the ropes, absorbing a fearsome pounding while letting Foreman exhaust himself in what came to be known as the "rope-a-dope" strategy.

For all the bluster, Ali still proves himself to be a bright, powerfully charming young man, as well as a splendid athlete. Comparing that vital force of nature with the uncertain individual we see today results in the only unhappy moments generated by this surprisingly engaging and evocative movie. (PG)

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