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Don King - Only in America
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
HBO has had a stormy relationship with boxing. Their partnership with controversial promoter Don King helped make them both extremely wealthy, but it also ended in a nasty huff. So it was no surprise when they tackled his life story. What is surprising, however, is what an outstanding film they made. Thanks to John Herzfeld's steady direction, Kario Salem's tight script, and especially to Ving Rhames' amazingly complete performance, the film goes way beyond standard TV biopic territory.
In the film, King goes from petty hood and numbers runner to incarcerated killer to the king of the sporting world with his "Rumble in the Jungle" Ali-Foreman fight in barely three years. The film makes no attempt to soft-peddle his character (he's shown constantly stepping all over his friends and partners to get ahead) but it doesn't attempt character assassination either. Countless scenes show him to be an exciting, magnetic person who has the ability to draw people to him like a flame does to moths, often with the same outcome.
One of the most unique techniques used in the film is the use of King as a narrator. This is no ordinary narration, however. Throughout the film Rhames plays King as the modern, gray-haired tycoon we all know and love to hate. This gives him an opportunity to comment on the stage of his life and the events being depicted, often with appropriate stills and videos projected behind him. This creates a complex blend between scenes that show King at his worst and then King explaining his side of the story.
Rhames, using a high-pitched salesman's voice much different from his own rumble, relishes all of King's malapropisms, like "besmirchify" and "impertinocity." His cigar-chomping performance is easily one of the most memorable in the last few years. Scenes, like one in which he delivers an unbelievable sermon on the sanctity of the compound noun that starts with "mother," are so dynamic and entertaining that its easy to get completely lost in the performance. The script is also clever, sharp, and well-structured. Plus, it includes just about the best line ever written about washing ones hands, delivered with style and a sly grin by Rhames.
The full-screen video is not too exciting, with somewhat drab colors and a slight lack of focus. Still, Bill Butler's cinematography is extraordinarily subtle and knowing, especially given the TV budget. Stock footage of virtually every location is blended seamlessly and the film looks great.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is fine, if not mind-blowing. The generous amount of music sounds good and the dialog is clear. French and Spanish tracks are also available, as are English, Spanish and French subtitles.
A commentary track with director John Herzfeld is extremely interesting. He discusses the making of the film, the events depicted, and his dealings with King himself all with clarity and wit. While the film began as an unauthorized biopic, Herzfeld did contact King a number of times for details and the stories of their interactions are very funny. A second commentary track features writer Kario Salem and executive producer Thomas Carter and is also interesting. It's a shame that Rhames couldn't have contributed to the commentary. Another extra that would have been great, but is not included, would have been Rhames' Golden Globe acceptance speech when he won best actor for his performance here. That was the year that he unexpectedly asked that the award be given to his hero, Jack Lemmon, whom he had beaten, instead. It was one of the few awards speeches ever given that's worth remembering.
Don King stands with And the Band Played On as an example of the outstanding work that HBO's film division can put out. It takes a simple subject (one man's story) and tells it in a funny, moving, strange, and different way.
Email Gil Jawetz at [email protected]