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ALI: Mann's Boxer Biopic Pretty, But Lacks Champ's Punch

 





Will Smith as Muhammad Ali
Will Smith as Muhammad Ali













Will Smith as Cassius Clay fighting Sonny Liston (Michael Bent)

Will Smith as Cassius Clay fighting Sonny Liston (Michael Bent)



















Drew “Bundini” Brown (Jamie Foxx) with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) and Don King (Mykelti Williamson)

Drew “Bundini” Brown (Jamie Foxx) with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) and Don King (Mykelti Williamson)
















Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X and Will Smith as Muhammad Ali
Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X and Will Smith as Muhammad Ali

















Will Smith as Muhammad Ali
Will Smith as Muhammad Ali



























Will Smith as Ali and Michael Michele as his third wife Veronica

Will Smith as Ali and Michael Michele as his third wife Veronica
























Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures





By C. Antonio Romero


NEW YORK, 11 January 2002 - Ali, Michael Mann's boxing epic starring Will Smith, isn't a bad movie. In fact, it's almost as pretty, in places, as Ali himself. But, unlike the champ, it packs little dramatic punch. The result: nearly three hours of heavyweight Hollywood ho-hum.

Mann found his real fame in the 1980's Miami Vice, which brought TV shows a then-radical music-video sensibility. And he's still quite good at using camera work and music to set moods, choreograph an audience's reactions, even do some storytelling for him. The movie, especially the meticulously choreographed boxing scenes, looks great. Busy camerawork and stirring score keep the film interesting enough that three hours pass before one even notices they're gone. (Particularly effective: sparingly used over-the-shoulder and below-the-belt camerawork in the ring, that provides a feel for a first-person perspective on a boxing match. One feels quite palpably what it would be to be on the receiving end of a flurry of Ali's punches—or Joe Frazier's, for that matter.) Visual hallmarks of authenticity abound. Settings, from Louisville to inner-city New York and even Kinshasa, look and feel faithful to their originals (as we imagine them, at least). And historical figures all bear their "signatures" : Elijah Muhammad and Mobutu Sese Seko both have their customary headwear, Malcolm X his reddish hair and goatee, and Howard Cosell his toupee.

Period music, lovely to hear, sets the tone in virtually every scene set in America, while West African pop star Salif Keita provides the musical backdrop for Ali's Kinshasa odyssey.

The movie sidesteps the first obvious pitfall: a descent into hagiography. Ali's poor choice of friends and management (including, ultimately, "Prince of Darkness" Don King) is presented quite openly, and his womanizing, if downplayed, is plain enough to see—we never see him with a woman he doesn't eventually marry (and divorce), and his second wife calls him on it. But these are common enough tropes of the celebrity-athlete's story. More importantly, we see Ali's personal weakness in failing to turn his back on the corrupt and manipulative Nation of Islam at critical moments—he's oddly cold to a Malcolm X who has clearly moved beyond the Nation of Islam's influence, and he chews out Elijah Muhammad's son Howard after beating Joe Frazier, but then submits again to their management. (Like Malcolm X, Ali owes much of his identity to the Nation's influence; but unlike Malcolm, he never quite breaks with them, even when he seems to have outgrown them.)

And inevitably, the film takes on the political aspect of Ali's early career: his engagement with the black militancy of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, his criminal prosecution and ban from boxing after refusing military induction, his denunciation of the U.S. as a bigger enemy to blacks and the poor than the Viet Cong, his decision to fight George Foreman in Mobutu's Zaire. (A celebrity athlete famous for the sport he can't compete in, Ali's transformed by his suspension and legal woes into a political figure, almost a political prisoner living in internal exile.) But somehow, none of Ali's inflammatory, anti-establishment positions feel particularly provocative as presented in this film. Even— or especially—today, for an American Olympic champion and celebrity professional athlete to take these kinds of positions would be explosive. (Can we imagine Tiger Woods taking such a stand? Michael Jordan?) Here, though, Ali's defiance throws few sparks, probably because Mann's swirl of music, image and texture prevents the articulation of any subtle or complex political ideas, or at least keeps the soothed audience from getting a solid grip on them.

Mann's music-video inclinations make him a better teller of simpler stories that engage the emotions more than the head. For instance, it's not clear that Mann sees or means to present the irony in a critical scene where Ali runs unescoreted through the back streets of Kinshasa. He discovers the walls covered in crude murals, many showing him knocking out Foreman in the ring, but others representing him as pan-African superman, towering over the landscape and swatting (presumably Western) airplanes out of the sky. Realizing the mythic figure he's become to these people, Ali is awestruck , but neither he nor Mann seems quite conscious, here, of the irony of Africa's superhero giving Mobutu a PR coup. And had Mann seen the irony here, he'd have probably had to resort to some bit of clumsy speechifying to get it into the scene—as he does by having Ali's second wife, Belinda (Nona M. Gaye) admonish the Champ about the choice to fight in a country as corrupt as Zaire.

Mann's imagistic approach is probably also responsible for the film's shapelessness. While too charming at times to be boring, the movie is not just episodic but unfocused. Ali's story is, to be sure, rich source material, as hard to adapt for the screen, in its way, as Tolkien's unfilmable Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it's intertwined with the urgent political questions of its time: civil rights (and especially the Martin Luther King / Malcolm X dipole), rising black pride in the U.S. and worldwide, class tensions and the Vietnam War. But Mann's responsibility is to shape a narrative line out of this material, and he fails to do so. For a long time, the movie wanders, unsure how to tell Ali's story separate from Malcolm's. (Do we really need to see a sinister FBI agent pulling the Nation's strings, ordering the hit on Malcolm? More broadly, do we really need as much of Malcolm's history, with and without Ali, as we get?) It's almost a relief when Malcolm X leaves the story—at least the focus can return to Ali. (Martin Luther King, played by LeVar Burton, is less of a distraction—in a non-speaking role, Martin basically shows up on the front page of a newspaper before being gunned down at a motel where Ali's attorney is using a pay phone—a coincidence too good to be true.)

The ending hits the audience with another bit of narrative chop: breaking off quite abruptly after the"Rumble in the Jungle", Mann throws us some closing titles alluding to little more than Ali's subsequent divorces and remarriages—nothing of his subsequent boxing career, and certainly nothing about his battle with Parkinson's disease—all things that condition how we will look at this story of the early-to-middle career of Ali. And we never once see Ali himself, even today one of the most recognizeable faces in the world. It's as if providing a satisfactory narrative resolution doesn't matter, once Mann finds the high note of the victory in Zaire.

Finally, what dooms Ali to be second-rate is Mann's failure to turn the remarkable figures of this history into characters in a compelling story, through a focus on acting, direction and writing. Admittedly, some of the actors—in particular, John Voight, Will Smith, and Mario Van Peebles—are constrained a bit by the memories of their ever-so-recognizeable originals. But other actors and directors have faced this kind of difficulty and delivered stellar performances that got at the essences of their originals.

Smith, who so often plays "Will Smith (tm)," turns himself into something resembling Ali, but never gets much beyond "adequate." (Smith's casting, at first a cause for dismay in some circles, was, however, a canny choice. His charm, glibness, and signature swagger echo—faintly—Ali's own gift for dazzling the pubilc with his rhyming taunts and boasts, backed up with conviction and ultimately with results.)

Van Peebles, by contrast, is horribly ordinary as Malcolm X (and would be so even without Denzel Washington looming over him). With the prominence that Malcolm X assumes in this film, Van Peebles becomes one of its biggest liabilities.

In supporting roles, Jon Voight, unrecognizeable as Howard Cosell, captures the off-screen warmth between the two men; and both Jada Pinkett (as Ali's first wife, Sonji) and Nona Gaye bring welcome energy to their brief screen appearances (though Michael Michele's Veronica, ultimately Ali's third wife, is flatter).

But this movie needed much more than 'passable' or 'adequate' performances from its lead performers to make the film more than an eerie re-enactment of scenes from Ali's life, or a snack to feed our nostalgic appetities for a glimpse of a champion whose more challenging sides we now tend to forget. Mann has the skills as a director to get performances from his cast—The Insider, Mann's last effort to get Oscar buzz, scored points this way, and was embarassing only when it turned to to music-video slickness. Pulling the film's one memorable dramatic performance out of Jamie Foxx (Ali's troubled cornerman Drew "Bundini" Brown), Mann reminds us of what he can do when he puts his mind to it. So why doesn't he get the same electricity out of his lead performers?

Ultimately, Ali disappoints. It isn't a terrible movie—any film that can present three hours of meandering narrative and so-so performances without managing to bore its audience must be doing something right. But it should be a better movie than it is. Ali's story is well worth telling—not just showing.



Two and a half stars.



C. Antonio Romero is the Nouveau editor of Culturekiosque.com.




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