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Film Review: Will Smith in 'Ali'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   Dec. 24, 2001 at 8:42 PM
LOS ANGELES, Dec. 24 (UPI) -- The tagline to director Michael Mann's movie "Ali," starring Will Smith as the most famous boxer of all time, is "Forget what you think you know."

You can say that again.

In one of the most frustrating disappointments in recent years, Mann depicts Muhammad Ali -- the incomparably extroverted, entertaining, and infuriating celebrity of the 20th Century -- as a morose introvert, a loner who seems to drag his own personal cloud of gloom around with him.

Dirge-like organ chords ominously underscore much of the action, helpfully letting you know when something heartbreaking is about to happen, such as our hero pounding the thuggish Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world in 1964.

In "When We Were Kings," the delightful Oscar-winning documentary about the storied 1974 Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire, one of the highlights is footage of an enchanted Ali jogging through the streets of Kinshasa. He is urged on to victory over Foreman by hundreds of ecstatic African boys running with him and chanting "Ali, kill him!"

Yet Mann restages the jog with poor Will Smith grimacing in nonstop spiritual agony, as if he could foresee the horrors that his host, President-for-life Mobutu, would inflict on these children over the next quarter century.

Yet, the movie shows soon after that while Ali's second wife was disgusted by Mobutu's monstrous corruption, Ali saw him only as a mighty black leader and as the man who was paying him $5 million.

Mann has directed several well-received movies, such as 1999's "The Insider," which electrified Hollywood and the critics (although not the public) with its shocking revelation that smoking is bad for you.

Still, Mann remains best known for creating that symbol of all things 1980s: "Miami Vice." Lifting the show above its general aura of stylish ridiculousness and giving it needed tragic heft was the performance of the somber Edward James Olmos as Lt. Castillo, a man permanently weighted down by the life-or-death moral burdens of command.

Now, Michael Mann is probably the only person ever to see Lt. Castillo and Muhammad Ali as psychological twins. Sadly, Mann is also the only person ever to be handed $105 million to make Ali's amazing life into a movie.

The movie runs from Ali's 1964 first triumph over Liston, through his 1967 suspension for draft evasion, his 1971 loss to Joe Frazier, and his 1974 comeback win over Foreman. But the script by Mann and three others is a mess.

Only boxing fans over 40 with a fair knowledge of 1960s social history will make much sense out of what is happening. And even old crocks like me will be baffled repeatedly by some of the most muffled dialogue since "The Jazz Singer."

Will Smith, however, is terrific whenever Mann lets him portray Ali rather than Lt. Castillo. The rapper-comedian matches Ali's verbal speed and comes close enough to his boxing quickness. Smith doesn't particularly look like Ali (for example, he's darker than Ali), but his flawless face makes plausible his character's loudly proclaimed love affair with his own prettiness.

The movie isn't quite as worshipful as one would expect, given Ali's current saintly image. Its main criticism of Ali is that when his friend Malcolm X stopped preaching racial loathing in 1964 and left the Black Muslims, Ali turned his back on him. Throughout the movie, Ali remained a follower of Elijah Muhammad's hate-driven Nation of Islam, even after Elijah's followers murdered Malcolm in 1965.

Of course, Mann skips over much else about Ali that doesn't fit today's stereotype.

The racism Ali displayed in his sneering at of the nearly jet-black Joe Frazier, an inarticulate but magnificent warrior, is covered up in the movie.

Ali managed to accuse Frazier, who had loaned Ali money during his draft evasion legal battles, of both being too white and too black. Ali's hometown Louisville Courier-Journal noted last June, "Ali quickly turned on Frazier, portraying him as an Uncle Tom, a clown, a white man in a black man's body ...

He taunted him mercilessly ... In a thinly veiled racial attack, light-skinned Ali called the darker-skinned Frazier a 'gorilla.'"

Nor does Mann mention that he was illiterate, as Ali openly admitted. Early in his career, his IQ tested at 78. Gerald Early, a prominent black studies professor and editor of the "Muhammad Ali Reader," commented, "He hadn't a single idea in his head, really ... I think the score was an honest reflection of Ali's mental abilities."

Yet, Early notes, "He was intuitive, glib, richly gregarious, and intensely creative, like an artist." Ali's vivid personality changed how athletes behave. Before Ali, jocks were expected to act modest, fair, and kind, just like public school boys in Victorian England, where most modern sports were formalized.

Ali was, in the words of famed sportswriter Frank Deford, "the original trash talker." He liberated athletes in most sports (other than golf) from the code of the British gentleman. He led sports back to the in-your-face braggadocio of ancient warriors like Goliath and Hector. Fans loved Ali's chest-thumping, few athletes since have possessed his humor. Ali's charmless children include Barry Bonds, John McEnroe, Allen Iverson, and Randy Moss.

Still, despite Ali's flaws, he didn't deserve Mann's glum treatment. He was brave, hard working, sensationally gifted, triumphant, and, most of all, fun.

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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