Requiem For A Hustler

THE HAIR LOOKS GREAT. IT STANDS straight up and has a life of its own. So does Ving Rhames's full-blooded impersonation of a certain vertically coiffed boxing promoter. ""Don King: Only in America,'' an HBO biopic debuting on Nov. 15, is based on Jack Newfield's 1995 book about the heavyweight hustler and convicted felon. For two hours Rhames floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. Between each round of his embattled life and times--prison, the ""Thrilla in Manilla,'' Mike Tyson--the prolix promoter offers vivid color commentary from inside a boxing ring. But the rest of the movie lumbers along with all the nuance of a George Foreman right hook.

""Don't matter what they say about you, as long as they tune in,'' King preaches. He developed this unabashedly venal worldview after doing time for worrying too much about what people said about him. In his days as a Cleveland numbers runner, word got around that a man owed him money. To save face, Newfield recounts, King pistol-whipped his debtor to death outside a pool hall. (King served four years for manslaughter and was later pardoned.) Jail smartened the young felon up, in all kinds of ways. He read Martin Luther King Jr., Hitler, Gandhi. ""I didn't serve time; I made time serve me,'' he crows (echoing Richard II's lament, ""I wasted time, and now doth time waste me''). Fresh out of lockup, he asks a buddy to introduce him to Muhammad Ali, who understood showmanship so instinctively he didn't need a promoter. King needed to convince him otherwise.

He did. The movie shows him winning over black boxers in a white-controlled sport by quoting the Koran and using a gift for what he calls ""negrotiation.'' And, as he instructs an associate, ""You gotta think planetarily.'' Meaning Africa, the location of his firstmajor triumph, in 1974: the ""Rumble in the Jungle.'' As Ali and Foreman, respectively, Darius McCrary and Jarrod Bunch vaguely resemble their real-life counterparts, but they don't fight like them; the clumsy ring scenes are the movie's worst embarrassment. Harder punches have been thrown in schoolyards. By the time weget to Bitin' Mike Tyson, you'd think HBO could have sprung for some real footage. It owns it, after all. Which raises theissue of the cable channel's unholy alliance with DK Productions. Is it weird for HBO to make a movie about one of its biggest revenue sources? Even King rants at one point about the hypocrisy of the ""HBO mother-f---ers'' who've made him rich.

For all his legendary below-the-belt ethics, King remainsa fascinating personality. In ""When We Were Kings,'' last year's documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle, literary lion George Plimpton says King knew more Shakespeare than he did. Early on in his career, King determined to be morefamous than the fighters he managed. The challenge is to capture a personality that big on the screen. But Rhames's charisma has enough dark and light in it to play both menacing criminal and goofy charmer. (King ends every other sentence with one of two words: ""baby!'' or ""motherf---er.'') Maybe ""Only in America'' should have been a one-man show. That's what King has always been anyway.