It saddens me to think that when most kids today see the name "Ali," they probably think of whipped-cream-bikini babe Ali Larter, not Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest," as he was wont to call himself -- as in the greatest fighter of all time.
Now, with Michael Mann's lengthy biopic of the heavyweight king hitting theaters, kids can think of former "Fresh Prince" Will Smith. And I'm still not sure if that's a good thing.
In Ali, the original trash-talking fighter comes to the big screen -- a mere one inch smaller than life -- with a brave Smith in the title role. The film takes us through the usual stuff of biopics: From a brief look at his youth as Cassius Clay in segregated 1960s Louisville, to a long stint as he became Muhammad Ali as a member of the Nation of Islam, to his title being stripped when he evaded the draft. Eventually, we go to Zaire, with Don King in tow, where Ali fights in "The Rumble in the Jungle," where he would regain his heavyweight title belt from a far more powerful George Foreman.
But those expecting a real knock-down film about boxing (and geez, why would you expect something like that from a movie called Ali?) are going to be disappointed. Sorely disappointed. As sore as taking an uppercut to the jaw. The problem is not that there isn't any boxing in Ali -- indeed, there's about 30 minutes of it. That leaves about 25 minutes for a movie about Ali the Philanderer and 105 long minutes for Ali the Muslim/Ali the Draft Dodger. The result is a padded (2 hours, 40 minutes) and considerably dull biography of one of sport's most engaging characters.
After opening with the Clay-Liston bouts, the movie quickly loses its momentum by dragging us through its lengthy rehashing of Malcolm X and his friendship with Clay, intercut with a ridiculous amount of standard-grade government conspiracy nonsense, with the feds trying to oust X from power. By the end of all of this, Malcolm X comes off like a stalker, and the Nation of Islam looks no better than Don King. Finally, the film starts to pick up by taking us back to the ring, but that momentum invariably dies again with sequences like Ali wooing yet another in a long series of women, a perennial weakness, or taking a long, dialogue-free musical sequence as Ali travels the countryside.
But when we're inside the ring, the film is superb -- in fact, it makes you forget you're watching a movie. The action is not staged -- it's real boxing, with real punches being thrown. And while Mann hints at some of the dirty goings-on in his fights -- like the mystery substance on Sonny Liston's gloves that blinded Ali for two rounds during their first bout -- he totally bypasses others -- like the persistent rumor that Liston took a dive in round one of their rematch. Ending the film with the Foreman fight manages to show us some of his greatest hits, but it ignores seven years of subsequent fighting (including "The Thrilla in Manila," his third and final match with Joe Frazier) and more importantly, Ali's diagnosis with Parkinson's disease later in life.
A bigger problem is that Mann, who has turned the looooong form into some real winners with films like Heat and The Insider, is starting to feel repetitious and self-derivative in his directing. While it used to come off as cool, the overexposed photography and patented zoom-in-and-refocus shaky-cams effect are now starting to feel painfully retro.
On the other hand, Ali's supporting cast is almost inspired. Jon Voight might deserve an Oscar for being unidentifiable and engaging as sportscasting legend Howard Cosell, his second historical figure of the year (the first being FDR in Pearl Harbor). He even gets close on the difficult accent. Jamie Foxx also works well as much-needed comic relief, as Ali's trainer/"spirit man"/drug addict pal Bundini. But casting Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X is about as effective as, oh, casting Billy Zane as Jesus. His work here is painful.
My quibbles with direction and some of the acting aside, Ali's biggest flaw is its muddled script (cut back from an original 200 pages) that simply misses the point of the man's life. All we really get out of the 160 long minutes are a few good boxing sequences and a brief look at Ali's rough and cobbled-together philosophy of life, along with the fleeting thought that his vanity and self-absorption caused him to miss virtually everything going on in the world around him. This theme is ultimately right, but the movie takes an awfully roundabout way in getting to the point. And for the boxing alone, the film isn't worth the effort. For a better history of Ali's greatest bout (and more entertainment value), check out the documentary When We Were Kings.
The biggest question, of course, is how well the precocious and sweet Will Smith transforms into Muhammad "I'm a baaaaad maaaaaan!" Ali. There's only so much that makeup and intense workouts can do to turn the far smaller Smith into the 210-pound Ali, but I give him a lot of credit for trying (he gained 35 pounds for the role -- and he's ripped). Most notably, Smith manages to successfully capture Ali's unique cadence and accent, a feat that was probably just as hard to pull off as the weight gain. But it's that Ali swagger that is simply impossible to replicate. Ali really was The Greatest, and Smith simply doesn't have the stage presence. No one does.
But on the whole, I'll give Smith due credit for his work here. But if Martin Lawrence turns up as the star of Tyson, I'm going to have to pass.
He's not just the president, he's also a client.