- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 26, 2000

Of all the public figures about whom to make a movie biopic, Muhammad Ali may pose the greatest challenge.
For one thing, his physical image is so indelibly burned into everybody's mind that for a mere actor to try to play him seems like impudence. For another, he was a public figure for so long and on so many hot-button topics, that to really do justice to the Ali story requires a several-hour miniseries.
"Ali: An American Hero" thus had to be brilliant to be any good at all. It falls far short of brilliance.
The Fox made-for-TV movie made a wise choice in limiting its scope to his life through his 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" bout against George Foreman, but in every other possible way, "Ali: An American Hero" steps wrong.
The story is familiar. Cassius Clay, a young black boy, walks into a Louisville, Ky., boxing club angry that his bike has been stolen. A white policeman trains him into a successful amateur (played as an adult by David Ramsey) who goes onto Olympic gold and a pro career.
Mixing outrageous boasts, a barrel of charisma and lightning-quick hands and feet, Mr. Clay wins the heavyweight championship and immediately thereafter declares his affiliation with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali. He refuses induction into the military and is stripped of the heavyweight crown and has to sit out three years. But he returns to the ring and eventually wins the title back with his victory over Mr. Foreman.
All that is the skeleton of any Ali story. But in "Ali: An American Hero," that's all there is … skeleton. The choice to end the movie in 1974 results in the film being unable to back up its title. We never get any sense that Mr. Ali ever became an American hero. We are talking, after all, about a man who is now semicanonized but who was once as reviled as Jane Fonda was.
Mr. Ali was so charismatic that he casts a long shadow over anyone trying to play him. Mr. Ramsey is not a great physical image of Mr. Ali, but he does have the voices and mannerisms down pat, especially for the poetry riffs and outrageous boasts.
Unfortunately, every time his performance begins to convince, the filmmakers undermine him by showing video clips of the real Mr. Ali. The first fights with Ken Norton and Joe Frazier even mix archival footage of the fights with the film's re-creations. In one case, the film cuts from one type of footage to the other in mid-punch. This is jarring and betrays a lack of confidence in the actor.
"Ali: An American Hero" is just awful with the trajectory of Mr. Ali's career in ways that a mere boxing fan, who as a boy in the early '70s idolized Mr. Ali, should not notice. These are some of the highlights:
In a montage of clips showing the early rise to prominence of the then-Mr. Clay, we clearly see clips of Mr. Ali's title fights against Oscar Bonavena, Cleveland Williams and Mr. Frazier. The movie has Mr. Ali reciting a poem about what he was going to do to Sonny Liston that he really recited about Mr. Frazier.
Also, after Mr. Clay wins the Golden Gloves, the very next scene, as though it followed automatically, has him going to the Olympics — the only Olympics, by the way, in which the boxers fought stripped to the waist. We get the beginning of the urban legend about Mr. Clay's treatment of his Olympic gold medal after being refused service at a whites-only Louisville restaurant, but it doesn't end the way I have always heard the story end.
The narrative, limited in scope though it is, still has too much material to cover and so winds up skimming through and over everything as though we're getting the Cliffs Notes version of Mr. Ali's life, with no plausible drama linking them.
For example, the courtship of his second wife is a scene in a Nation of Islam bake shop in which Mr. Ali asks her out and she tells him he's going too fast. The movie's very next scene is their marriage. Go slow, indeed.
The show contains other such hyper-telescoped plots, too numerous to do more than list, including Mr. Ali's draft evasion case; his post-layoff career apart from the Foreman fight; and the dumping and reconciliation with his ace cornerman Drew "Bundini" Brown, of whose genius the film merely assures us. Angelo Dundee and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco are introduced early and then whisked away, their existence here serving no discernible purpose.
Other choices are merely inexplicable. What is the point of ostentatiously using video for Howard Cosell's commentaries when the monologues are re-created and Mr. Cosell is played by an actor? Why is nothing at all made of the defining feud of Mr. Ali's career — against Mr. Frazier? One of the most controversial fights of all time — the rematch against Mr. Liston — is never even mentioned.
But the dedicated Ali fan can pick through this train wreck and see the shards of the movie that might have been — and that's in the Nation of Islam material. Both Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad are well-played. There's some real drama — flawed only by lack of time and some very selective emphases — in the tensions within the Clay family and entourage over Mr. Ali's conversion, the strain on his marriage to a non-Muslim and the rifts in the Nation of Islam among Malcolm X, Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Ali.
Assuming the five-hour-miniseries route was not an option, the filmmakers might have made something better by going minimal and making the whole movie about Mr. Ali's involvement with the Nation of Islam. It's inherently interesting material that hasn't been done to death.
Detailing how bad this movie is pains me. It makes me feel like a Larry Holmes pounding on his boyhood idol. "The Greatest" deserves better. At least, in such documentary films as "When We Were Kings" and an HBO show this month on the first Frazier fight, he has gotten it.

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