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Not enough sting in this 'Ali'

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[Photo: Columbia Pictures]
Will Smith becomes Muhammad Ali, once removed. There’s simply no way that the movie Ali can entirely capture the man and the era.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 25, 2001
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Ali has its moments, but its portrayal of the star's life leaves one longing for the knockout punch.

Michael Mann's biography of Muhammad Ali doesn't float, seldom stings and plays rope-a-dope with the facts, turning what should have been a glorious tribute into a tepid star vehicle. Then the star doesn't even get it right.

Will Smith plays Ali and the casting seems inspired, especially after the actor gained 35 pounds of muscle to emulate the boxer's physique. What's missing is the urgency to be heard that made Ali an inspiration to some and an irritation to others. Ali shocked white America as a brash, cocky black man. Now such braggadocio is a staple of rap music, comedy and sports, and Smith specializes in two of those skills. But the trail Ali blazed is now smoothly paved.

Smith can recite Ali's boasts, yet his delivery is perhaps a quarter-beat slower and less insistent than the real deal. Sounds minor, but it makes a difference. Mann doesn't develop the fact that much of America 40 years ago didn't appreciate a black man so bold. Just because the script mentions that occasionally doesn't give it dramatic impact. Ali had everything at stake and Smith doesn't. At least, his version of Ali doesn't.

Much of the blame goes to a screenplay by Mann and Eric Roth that skims through 10 years of a life we already know so well. A film revealing what happened before Sonny Liston and after George Foreman would shed new light on the subject, explaining what made Ali so confident early on and how such a superb physical specimen responds to having his body ravaged by Parkinson's disease. Something is wrong when the end notes of a film biography invite better questions than most of those answered over the previous three hours.

Mann constantly jabs at interesting ideas, then dances away. We see young Ali intently listening to Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) without any explanation of what urged him to that Nation of Islam meeting in the first place. Mann boldly took on the tobacco industry in The Insider, yet tiptoes around the notion that Elijah Muhammad and the Nation were simply exploiting the champ. Ali's relationship with sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) is described but not defined. Their verbal sparring in a series of interviews was a key element in improving race relations but Mann overlooks that dynamic.

The film's final act covers the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" with Foreman, but the political undercurrent of the fight -- a U.S. flag-waving teddy bear vs. a draft-dodging panther -- is ignored. A lot of America wanted Ali to lose badly, to shut up a big, black mouth and let smiley George restore "order." Without that perspective, Ali becomes a story of hatchets already buried although the genuine drama occurred when they were raised in anger.

Some choice moments emerge. Ali's responses to U.S. government charges of draft evasion that led to the loss of his heavyweight championship bring out the best energy in Smith. A meeting with Joe Frazier to practically beg for a title fight when Ali is down and out is a great, unearthed nugget, if it's true. The fight scenes are masterfully conceived but rage too long, especially the opening bout with Liston. We don't need to see nearly every round to appreciate the champ's skill.

Smith's eagerly respectful impersonation is surrounded by actors for whom physical resemblance to their real-life subjects is enough. Van Peebles doesn't capture Malcolm's fire like Denzel Washington did, and too much attention is paid to corner man Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) and his personal demons. Voight has Cosell's nasal voice down pat but the latex makeup slathered on his face looks like a Tussaud exhibit after a fire.

Ali isn't a bad movie, just a disappointing one considering the material available to Mann. Compare this film to the Oscar-winning 1996 documentary When We Were Kings and its depiction of the Ali-Foreman fracas to learn what could have been. The Ali of Mann's movie is merely another good man in tough circumstances. The real Ali turned everyone else's circumstances into his own, lifting a race as surely as he leveled opponents. That Ali was a fighter. Smith is just shadowboxing.

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Ali

  • Grade: B-
  • Director: Michael Mann
  • Cast: Will Smith, Jon Voight, Jamie Foxx, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Nona Gaye, Jada Pinkett Smith
  • Screenplay: Eric Roth, Michael Mann
  • Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations
  • Running time: 165 min.

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