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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » When We Were Kings (Blu-ray)
When We Were Kings (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // PG // October 22, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ryan Keefer | posted October 21, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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The Movie:

I forgotten how much I enjoyed When We Were Kings, the 1996 documentary recollecting the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. I watched a ton of Ali as a kid, I had a rock ‘em sock ‘em set of sorts, with Ali and a pseudo Ken Norton that you could box with. I may have been the only kid in my neighborhood who had a subscription to The Ring. I bought the Ali biography from longtime Ali friend Thomas Hauser (who appears in the film). And this thought and others came roaring back to life after seeing this for the first time in years.

Noted writers and fight fans Norman Mailer and George Plimpton share their thoughts on both fighters and the fight. And contemporary fans like Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) talk about him at the time as well. The fight itself is recounted in sports lore; Ali had finished a fight with the government over the draft and started fighting again, but certainly wasn't the Ali we knew in the mid to late 60s before losing his prime years to legal battles. Foreman was the champ now, throttling common opponents between himself and Ali, notably knocking down Joe Frazier more than a half dozen times before knocking him out. With then young promoter Don King throwing unprecedented cash at both fighters, the die was cast, and the decision to hold the fight in Africa and hold a cultural concert with scores of African American musicians of the times seemed like a no brainer. Foreman received a cut over his eye which caused the fight to be delayed (the concert went ahead as scheduled), which seemed to give Ali a chance to further connect with the Zaire people, who chanted "Ali, bombaye!" or "Ali, kill him!" It wasn't ill will to Foreman, but the spiritual bond established between Ali and the people was one to behold.

There's been a lot written, said and seen about the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Ali and Foreman, but experiencing it is a whole other ballgame. Seeing how charismatic Ali was, how brutal Foreman was in training, it's something to behold. Ali doing roadwork while a dozen locals are around him, and he's charming them to the nth degree, you watch with a frozen smile on your face. Maybe because of how boxing hurt him later in life, but it's another thing. You know how pro wrestlers do mic work to hype a match or something like that? Ali did do that, but that requires an expended energy you can't maintain for hours or days. Ali didn't, but his mean was something that was magical. One moment where he discusses the ‘phantom punch' in his rematch with Sonny Liston for example. He gives you what sounds like a serious answer, sucking you in, then hits you with the punchline. It was a wonder to behold. And having him captivate like that, constantly, was magical.

This is before he even got in the ring with Foreman. And Plimpton and Mailer discuss the genius of Ali's ‘rope-a-dope', but more interestingly is the prelude in the first round that set up such a thing. It perhaps was a motivation for doing it, and we don't know why it was done; another part of the magic of the film is that they do not have the fighters or managers do sit down interviews for the film; whatever is done and said is left in Zaire, kinda feeds into the mystery of course.

It's unfair that boxing takes away so many of these faces and minds from injury or worse, and we're lucky to see When We Were Kings serve as a historical document or moment in time. But it's easy to see that it is more than about the fight, it's Ali's relationship with the people, brought on by a shared awe, albeit in different circumstances, that make it have an additional resonance for the viewer.

The Blu-ray
The Video:

A 4K digital transfer was created for the 1.78:1 feature and it looks great. Colors are natural, image detail such as on the tighter shots of the singers or fighters is decent with beads of sweat on facial pores. There are moments where there is some image noise but I don't think that was inherent to the source to a degree (memory serves Polygram did the only release on standard def back in the day), and looks cleaner without being artificial.

The Sound:

A DTS-HD Master Audio surround 5.0 track which sounds good, especially the moments with the music. Crowd noise is immersive and interviews are clean and well-balanced, requiring little user compensation. The modern songs all are solid and possess nice dynamic range, particularly the title one near the end of the film. It didn't have to do much and was fine in doing so.


The big extra here is "Soul Power" (1:32:30), where Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte compiled the film that begat the festival. You see the difficulties in pulling it together, the work the musicians did to get overseas to the show, and the environment they were in. Seeing peak James Brown and B.B. King next to African performers is a cool thing to see (coming off of seeing Amazing Grace and knowing about Wattstax, shows like this intrigue me), and it's a nice complement to the feature. The remaining items are scant; there is an interview with Director Leon Hast (4:08) from 1997 where he talks about getting the film together, how he landed distribution and eventually the Oscar nomination. Another interview with Gast's co-producer David Sonenberg (16:15), who helped Gast reclaim the shot film for the feature in 1989, gets a little more detailed into his roots for boxing and on Gest, the concert and other interesting tidibits. He remembered how the film resurfaced and the process to put it together into a documentary, and has his own thoughts on the Oscar moment and reception for it. The trailer (1:39) is the only other extra to speak of.

Final Thoughts:

There is a story recounted in one of the extra materials, and it's one that was done in Foreman's voice. Foreman asked about the film and the filmmakers were reticent to show it to him, given the film sort of portrays him as the bad villain. They eventually showed it to him, and hadn't heard from him in a couple of weeks. They eventually reach Foreman, who said that he'd seen the film more than 10 times, and still wasn't sure he was going to lose. That could be the best part of the film, you get drawn into it so easily and are spellbound by the setting, by the circumstances, and by Ali most of all. It's a timeless and enjoyable movie. Criterion does well by the film technically, and the extras are fine. Now that Criterion's done the treatment to this one, I'll gladly watch it again and again and urge others to do the same.

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