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'Ali'

The movie lacks a knockout punch

Tuesday, December 25, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

We live in an age when public figures sacrifice any semblance of a private life to the insatiable god of celebrity. Even so, we have not yet found a way to read another man's thoughts or see things entirely from his perspective.

But that's exactly what the movie "Ali" tries to do, beginning with the film's opening montage.

The year is 1964. A young boxer named Cassius Clay is punching the light bag and letting his thoughts wander. Here's Sam Cooke on stage, singing like an angel and making the ladies swoon. There's Clay as a child, grasping an adult's hand, walking to the back of the bus and seeing a newspaper story about the lynching of Emmitt Till. Here's Clay's father, meticulously painting pictures of Jesus Christ.

 
 
"Ali"

Rating: R for some language and brief violence.

Players: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles.

Director: Michael Mann.

Critic's call:

   
 

Clay would go on to win the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston. He would convert to Islam and accept the name Muhammad Ali. In the ring, he would float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Outside the ring, he would brag and boast and predict his next win in rhyme like a primordial rapper, infuriating some and captivating others.

He fought the U.S. government when it tried to draft him into the Army during the Vietnam War -- "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong," he said -- and was stripped of the title for his trouble. Eventually, he would get the opportunity to win it all back -- the championship, the spotlight, the respect. The movie assiduously works the theme of renewal and redemption.

Ali has become one of those transcendental figures who is loved and admired throughout the world -- "immortal in his own lifetime," to quote biographer Thomas Hauser.

"Ali," directed by Michael Mann, displays its own brand of reverence. In trying to show the serious side of an exuberant man, the movie overcompensates by telling the story on such a personal level that it largely fails to convey the force of Ali as an icon of popular culture. He billed himself as the people's champion, but we never get a sense of how the masses respond to him, at least in America.

When Ali goes to Africa for the 1974 championship bout against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, huge crowds line the road and jog along as he does his roadwork. On the night of the fight, the crowd in the packed stadium roars at the sight of his entrance. Ali seems utterly taken by surprise at the reaction. Given his enormous charisma and his ease in the spotlight, how could he not expect such fervor?

In trying to convey his motivations, the movie leeches out much of his joie de vivre. It contains several scenes in which he launches into his famous jive, but it feels like he has flipped a switch to begin playing a role. I don't doubt for a minute that Ali calculated his effect, but the force of his magnetism is too powerful to be entirely manufactured. Ali's appeal would not be so great if it were not organic.

Yet there are other scenes in the movie that replace shrewdness with instinct, specifically the suggestion that he improvised the rope-a-dope strategy in the Foreman fight after he realized in the ring that he couldn't win by conventional methods.

The movie's rationalism affects the performances as well. I couldn't imagine how skinny Will Smith could transform himself into a reasonable facsimile of a heavyweight boxer, but a year of training and of absorbing Ali's athletic style (and an additional 35 pounds) did the trick. He captures Ali's style and cadence. The fight scenes are exciting and convincing enough.

But Smith's performance comes off more as a good impersonation than as a real integration into the character. I suspect it is more Mann's fault than Smith's, because it is true of most of the other actors as well, including Jon Voight as Howard Cosell, the sportscaster who attached himself to Ali during the draft case, and Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X. They all capture the look of these famous personages but lack the fire and passion that propelled them. Jamie Foxx fares better as the flamboyantly deranged Bundini Brown.

"Ali," scripted by Mann and screenwriters Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (they collaborated on a better movie psychodrama, "Nixon"), assumes that audiences are familiar with the people and events of its subject's life. It doesn't identify trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver) until the second half of the movie. Paul Rodriguez portrays fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco, but I must have blinked and missed him.

But the narrative is equally confusing. When did his mid-'60s trip to Africa end and his return to America begin? Did the movie tell us that Joe Frazier lost his title before the second Ali fight?

Ali famously proclaimed, "I am the greatest." Unfortunately, the movie isn't.

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