2002-01-03 / Arts & Entertainment

Film Bio Of "The Greatest" Is ‘Merely Good’

Film Bio Of "The Greatest" Is ‘Merely Good’

Will Smith portrays heavyweight boxing legend Muhammed Ali in the new bio pic,  "Ali." 					      Frank Connor (c)Columbia PicturesWill Smith portrays heavyweight boxing legend Muhammed Ali in the new bio pic, "Ali." Frank Connor (c)Columbia Pictures

By David Germain

AP Movie Writer

You go in pulling for "Ali" to be, if not the greatest of fight films, at least among the great. Muhammad Ali is such a fabled figure, his life on the big screen should sizzle with passion and put viewers on the emotional ropes as the boxer goes from center ring to exile and back again.

But director Michael Mann’s story of "The Greatest" is merely good. Instead of passion, there’s an oddly clinical passivity about the production, a remoteness that portrays Ali’s moves and attitudes but fails to get inside his skin.

The film delivers broad strokes about Ali’s rise to the championship, the friendship with Malcolm X, his time in the wasteland as a Vietnam draft resister, his struggles with Muslim chauvinism in relation to the women in his life and his eventual comeback in the ring.

Yet, the film imparts few insights into the man himself. Mann presents Ali as a champ who is who he is, no explanations needed or tendered, who acts out based on principles that required greater explication to bring the character to life.

That said, "Ali" still may have a shot to contend for some top Oscar nominations. As Ali, Will Smith makes a decent showing in his first major gambit at serious acting. Jon Voight, unrecognizably made-up as sportscaster Howard Cosell, is a candidate for a supporting-actor nod, as is Jamie Foxx in a surprisingly rich turn as troubled Ali aide Drew "Bundini" Brown.

"Ali" focuses on the boxer’s prime, from his Cassius Clay days in 1964 when he wins the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston, through his return to glory 10 years later as he reclaims the championship from George Foreman at the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire.

Mann applies a languid, almost dreamlike style early on to encapsulate the atmosphere of racial unrest emerging as Ali rises to prominence, using an effective montage set to a Sam Cooke medley. "Ali" then abruptly jumps into the ring for the Clay-Liston fight.

Any doubts that former "Fresh Prince" Smith could physically handle the Ali role quickly vanish. Smith, who bulked up by 30 pounds, lopes and bobs, floats and stings with seemingly natural ease.

Smith heartily replicates Ali’s defiant verbal acuity, best evidenced in exchanges with Voight as Cosell. The interaction between the two is a highlight of "Ali"; the men share a call-and-response pretension of taunts publicly, an affectionate bond of respect in private.

Beyond the Ali-Cosell relationship, though, the movie only superficially captures Ali on a human scale. The screenplay credited to Stephen Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth and Mann (the latter two who collaborated on Mann’s "The Insider") keeps audiences a bit at bay, depicting Ali more as a somewhat distant icon than a flesh-and-blood man.

Ali’s life in this period was such a hotbed of personal and public turmoil, the movie may simply be too packed. His conversion to Islam _ and the friction it created in his marital relations _ could have made a compelling single focus for the film, as could his battle against the government for conscientious-objector status during Vietnam.

"I ain’t going 10,000 miles to hurt and kill other poor people," Smith’s Ali declares.

Beyond Voight and Foxx’s excellent performances, the rest of the supporting cast is cohesive and competent: Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye and Michael Michele as Ali’s wives, Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X, Giancarlo Esposito as Ali’s father, Mykelti Williamson as Don King, Ron Silver as trainer Angelo Dundee and Jeffrey Wright as Ali pal Howard Bingham.

The real-life Bingham served as an executive producer.

"Ali," a Sony release, runs 157 minutes.

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